The Economics of Concert Performances

Last night I went to a truly magnificent show at Carnegie Hall: Sir Simon Rattle

conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in Shostakovich’s

10th Symphony. My front-row seats were $44 each. This evening, Sir Simon returns,

conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Front-row seats,

if you can find them, are $144 apiece. What explains the difference?

  • The quality of the music. This should be much more important

    than it is, however: one can easily imagine an ideal world where the audience

    goes to the concert hall in order to hear great music, and is willing to pay

    more for greater music. But that’s not necessarily the case in real life.

    Last night’s symphony was about as good as music gets, and although the Berlin

    Phil are surely more polished, they also lack the Venezuelans’ infectious

    enthusiasm. Still, at the very top of any scale, small differences in quality

    can mean large differences in price: ask any wine merchant. And the Berlin

    Phil are the best orchestra in the world.

  • Snob value. A night at Carnegie Hall is about much more

    than just the music. If I were a banker, say, taking out a client, then I’d

    gravitate naturally to the importance and gravitas of Berlin. Conversely,

    youth orchestras generally have much less snob value than they deserve.

  • The lack of a superstar soloist. For reasons I’ve never

    really understood, soloists sell concert tickets in a way that orchestras

    don’t. It’s hard for a foreign orchestra to sell out on the strength of its

    name alone: they often bring in a big-name soloist to help out. There are

    really only two orchestras in the world which can charge premium rates just

    for being who they are, and Berlin is one of them.

  • The cost of the musicians. The Berlin Phil is a very well-paid

    professional band; the Venezuelans are amateurs.

  • The profit motive. When the Berlin Phil plays in Berlin,

    it’s heavily subsidized and therefore has a mandate to be accessible to all.

    When it goes on tour, however, that mandate evaporates, and it charges whatever

    it can get away with. By contrast, the Venezuelans, even on tour, don’t have

    that profit motive, and the democratic ethos of the famous sistema

    would be severely tarnished if New York’s Venezuelan community, much of which

    is quite poor, found themselves unable to afford tickets.

All of this, of course, worked in favor of the music lovers in the audience

last night (and a great audience it was, too). We got great art at a very low

price. Tonight, the audience (much of which will be quite bored and there because

they feel they have to be there) will get great art at a very high price. If

anybody wants to give me a ticket or two, I’ll accept with alacrity. But I’m

very happy with the choice I made.

Update: Alex

Ross weighs in on the relative merits of the two orchestras.

If the Berliners represent the consummation of orchestral art as currently

practiced, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gives

a glimpse of a possible future: one in which classical music becomes a more

diverse and popular art without any loss of distinction…. The pool of talent

is deep enough to produce a world-class orchestra; this ensemble lost little

in comparison with those which typically play at Carnegie, Berlin included…

Dudamel achieved the most sensuous and vital performance of Bartók’s

Concerto for Orchestra that I’ve ever heard.

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