Average annual compensation of $600,000, eight individuals earning over a million, and a top salary in excess of five million dollars. What are we talking about here? Executive packages at a leading multi-national company?
Actually, no. These are numbers from a recent survey of American symphony orchestras, and what they pay their music directors. Unsurprisingly, they have provoked reactions ranging from shock to outright hostility. Half a million or more to wave a stick in front of 80-odd orchestral players? You cannot, surely, be serious?
Opinions inside the classical musical community itself are generally more measured. Those of Kyu-Young Kim, principal violinist and artistic director at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), are typical.
"Complete knowledge of the score," says Kim, "immaculate rhythm and superhuman ears, great stick technique, excellent communicative skills, and the ability to inspire the musicians — if someone can do all that and also inspire a whole community to support their orchestra, then a high salary can make a lot of sense."
New York-based violist Dov Scheindlin agrees that having the right music director can be crucial. "Having a single charismatic embodiment of the institution is marketing gold," he says. "But often the people that boards and managements are taking a chance on don't necessarily have the musical abilities to back up their star power. In the long run that can weaken the musical product."
There's the rub: truly outstanding music directors are few and far between, as in their scramble to appoint new ones organizations such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera have recently been discovering.
At what point are the silly salaries no longer worth paying? When do you stop getting value for your money? Are there other ways of filling leadership responsibilities without investing so many donor dollars in a single, high-visibility person?
There are, and Dov Scheindlin is ideally placed to talk about them. He plays viola and is an artistic director at the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an award-winning ensemble that has never had a music director in over four decades of existence, and performs without a conductor.
For Scheindlin, the Orpheus model, where all the musicians have a say in how a piece will be played and interpreted, is truly liberating. "When there is a conductor present," he says, "there is very limited scope for musical contribution beyond executing your part in a manner determined by others. In Orpheus, a player who has an idea can speak up and be heard, and potentially improve the final result."
There are, Scheindlin concedes, downsides to this non-hierarchical, democratic way of working. The extra discussion and exchange of views, for one thing, requires "about twice as much rehearsal time as most symphony orchestras for a given program."
It is, Scheindlin argues, worth it, creating "a palpable sense of excitement" and fresh discovery in Orpheus concerts, and avoiding what he calls the "cruise control" effect you often get in conductor-led performances, "where everything is more or less correct, but the result doesn't leap off the page as well."
The SPCO also frequently plays without a conductor, and Kyu-Young Kim agrees with Scheindlin that the results are strikingly different.
"Performing symphonies and large ensemble pieces as giant chamber music works," he says, "requires a heightened awareness, both aurally and visually, which we feel translates into extremely dynamic and distinctive performances for the audience."
The SPCO stopped hiring a music director over a decade ago, and has since been working with a pool of five "artistic partners," who change with time, and bring a range of different insights and experiences to their collaborations with the orchestra.
The aim, says Kim, is to keep things "creative" and "individual," and to steer away from the potentially suffocating effect of having a single music director making most of the important decisions.
Despite the advantages, both financial and artistic, of operating without a music director or conductor, Scheindlin acknowledges there are natural limitations to the players-only model of performance management pioneered by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
"Once you hit about 40 players or so," he observes, "which covers the vast majority of orchestral repertoire after 1820, the physical distance between players begins to play tricks on your ears. When you try to play together with someone on the other side of the stage that you can't see, the sounds reaches you well after it is too late to respond. So larger groups absolutely need a conductor."
So while full-size symphony orchestras will continue to require a conductor in front of them to keep it all together — the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, for instance, or the mighty tone-poems of Richard Strauss, need firm grasping and shaping from the center — there is no doubt that a new, invigorating template of orchestral operation has taken root in smaller ensembles like the SPCO and Orpheus.
It's worth remembering too that needing a conductor by no means necessarily means needing a music director. The Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world's greatest orchestras, has operated successfully without one for the entire 170 years of its existence. Instead it cultivates fruitful relationships with a variety of conductors, showing that the Orpheus-SPCO model has relevance even in big symphonic organizations.
It's a way of working that empowers players, engages the full range of their artistic abilities, and challenges the need to pay music directors the kind of inflationary salaries that have recently been raising eyebrows among observers of the classical music scene in America.
In an era radically, sometimes violently averse to established orthodoxies and centralized systems of leadership, it is also a model which might easily gain further traction. That is certainly how the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's Dov Scheindlin sees it.
"As a substitute for the one single public face of the orchestra," he says, "we offer a message of democracy and involvement. We stand for the idea that the more voices that are heard the stronger the result, and that narrative is a powerful one that people can relate to."
Terry Blain was educated in Northern Ireland and Cambridge, England, and writes for a wide range of publications, including BBC Music Magazine and Opera Magazine. In his spare time he is an avid record collector, and walks his dog Buddy.