After all the hype, the Berlin Philharmonic failed to elect a new conductor this week.
The question of who follows Simon Rattle – in perhaps the world’s most prestigious job in music – will keep media and music lovers busy for another year.
But one question the public will never get an answer to is about how much they will be paid: In Germany, the salaries of the people who wield the orchestral baton is a well-kept secret.
Top managers of listed companies are legally mandated to publish their salaries. But for star conductors – the senior managers of orchestras, so to speak – there is no public pay registry, only confidentiality agreements.
“We have agreed in the contract not to disclose how much the chief conductor earns,” said a spokeswoman for the Berlin Philharmonic.
It’s the same for all top orchestras in Germany – the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden or the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. These aren’t private companies but subsidized cultural operations, financed with taxpayer money.
But while you can look up the pay for public servants, politicians and professors, no one knows anything about the publicly financed salaries of conductors.
Lorin Maazel was considered the most expensive conductor in the world and allegedly made up to €120,000 per night.
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, for example, receives about €16 million ($18 million) annually from the city of Leipzig in Saxony. How much of this money flows to the music director, Italian star conductor Riccardo Chailly, is kept under wraps.
If the city reveals how much the maestro makes, he has the right to cancel his contract. And Mr. Chailly has proven in the past he won’t hesitate to use this right. When the opera in Valencia, Spain, where he was supposed to start before joining the Leipzig orchestra, let it slip that his yearly salary amounted to more than €1 million, the conductor pulled out.
Ever since, the non-disclosure agreement looms over the conductor’s stand like an unspoken threat – if you talk, I’ll walk.
That piqued the interest of the public officials who, unlike taxpayers, do have access to the conductor’s pay details – audit officers for the state of Saxony. They consider Mr. Chailly’s remuneration too high. The music director makes more than a state minister, before additional gigs and bonuses.
Even Mr. Chailly’s housing in Leipzig is paid for with tax money. The conductor is living in an executive suite in a fancy hotel, according to local news reports. The usual price per night for the room is €810.
Auditors in Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria have criticized the high costs of conductors as well. While big concert halls fork out millions for star conductors, other ensembles have to fire musicians, merge or close down altogether.
And while all citizens in theory subsidize classical concerts, only a small, mostly elite audience gets to actually enjoy the qualities of a world-class conductor. When Mr. Chailly signed his contract about ten years ago, the city of Leipzig was dubbed the poverty capital of Germany, with unemployment of more than 20 percent.
Compared to some conductors, Mr. Chailly can still be considered modest. Herbert von Karajan, who directed the Berlin Philharmonic for more than 30 years until his death in 1989, was famous not only for his music but also for his lucrative record deals and extravagant lifestyle. He owned several private jets, a yacht with 21 staff members and several sports cars. When he died, his fortune was estimated at about 500 million deutsche marks.
Or take Lorin Maazel, who headed the Munich Philharmonic until his death in 2014. He was considered the most expensive conductor in the world and allegedly made up to €120,000 per night.
“Among the capitalists of the industry, he probably was the Croesus,” a music critic once wrote.
State auditors approached Mr. Maazel as well. Within five years, the chief conductor’s salary rose “from a level near the knuckle by more than 50 percent per concert,” according to the auditing office.
Does that mean German musical hubs waste taxpayer money to entertain an elite audience? Or are the auditors just nitpickers?
Auditing officials certainly only look at what a conductor costs, and not what he adds to an orchestra, like an international reputation for example.
The better a conductor’s reputation, the higher not only the audience’s interest, but the more valuable his connections – to the music industry, to sponsors and sought-after soloists. The more tours, star appearances and CDs an orchestra has under its belt, the more visitors it attracts from around the world.
“Indirect profitability” is what economists call it. Concertgoers book hotel rooms, have dinner, go shopping. The marketing division of the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, together with scientists of Leipzig’s graduate school of management, analyzed this effect for one year.
The results will be presented this summer, but the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s managing director, Andreas Schulz, has already leaked one number: For every euro the city of Leipzig spends on the orchestra, including its conductor, it takes in €2.43, he said.
And there are additional benefits for cities modeling themselves as cultural hubs, as Leipzig does. High-profile maestros don’t only attract people who like music, but those who make a lot of money, reports the Ifo Institute for Economic Research.
Ifo researchers found that subsidizing cultural activities is expensive but worth it. Operas, concert halls and theater stages attract highly qualified employees whose higher income boosts a city’s economy in the long run.
“Our conductor is worth every cent,” said Mr. Schulz.
He thinks it would be wrong to disclose the maestro’s pay. Conductors aren’t top managers and orchestras aren’t companies, goes Mr. Schulz’ argument. Conductors don’t create jobs, he said, they create music.
Yet concert halls often face the same competitive pressures that businesses in the private sector do. If they want to attract the best talent, they have to come at least close to salaries paid in other places.
“Competition from the United States is extremely strong,” said Mr. Schulz. “They want European conductors – and are offering them a lot of money.”
In the United States, conductors’ pay is public. In general, Mr. Schulz considers this sort of transparency a good idea. But only if that doesn’t question the point of investing in cultural activities. “If we publish conductors’ salaries, no one will be able to make music in peace anymore,” said Mr. Schulz. “Everyone will just be looking at where to save money.”
In the end, ensembles like the Berlin Philharmonic face additional pressures to big U.S. salaries or cost cutting by German states and cities. They are also pressured by strong conductor characters – who not only want to get the most out of negotiations for themselves, but also for their musicians and city.
Video: Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonics performing Dvořák's Symphony No. 9.
Mariss Jansons, head of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich and a potential successor to Simon Rattle in Berlin, recently campaigned enthusiastically for a new concert hall in the city.
Christian Thielemann, another candidate for the maestro post in Berlin, left his former job at the Berlin opera 10 years ago because he didn’t get the raise he demanded for his musicians.
And Claudio Abbado, the former chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who passed away last year, used to be generous even in megalomania. In the 1980s, he left the Milan-based opera Scala because of planned cuts and vowed to never return. When a local politician finally convinced him to step to the conductor’s stand one last time in 2009, Mr. Abbado asked for unspeakable compensation.
And he didn’t just want money – he wanted trees. Mr. Abbado demanded 90,000 trees be planted in Milan, at a cost totaling €22 million.
At the time, the city reasoned it planned to invest in its greenery anyway – and in the end, Mr. Abbado took up the baton.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]