In Frank Zappa’s autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, he dedicates an entire chapter to describe the daunting task of getting an orchestra to perform his original compositions. Attempting such a feat cost Zappa well over $250,000, but failed to result in a successful concert in Amsterdam, Austria, or Syracuse, NY after problems with unions and international politics got in the way. Zappa was so infuriated by the unions, in particular, he called them “extortionist[s].”
Nathan Currier probably feels Zappa’s pain. Alex Ginsberg at the New York Post reports that Currier, a Julliard-trained composer, is suing the Brooklyn Philharmonic for ruining the debut of his piece “Gaian Variations” five years ago. In the middle of the performance, Currier was informed that due to union rules, the two intermissions would force the musicians to be paid an unaffordable overtime salary to complete the piece. Currier allegedly gave them an abridged version, but the conductor simply ended the original piece early and walked off the stage. Currier said the disastrous performance (that cost him $70k) was a “kiss of death” to his career, but he “would drop the case in five seconds if they would just play it again.”
I suppose it could be worse: At Zappa’s London Symphony Orchestra debacle, the musicians were getting drunk during intermission. The bar was “well stocked and very efficient,” Zappa wrote. “They can pour a whole orchestra’s worth of booze in nanoseconds. During the break between pieces, the LSO left the stage and availed itself of this convenience. When it returned to play the next piece, many members were roasted—and so was my music.”
So, next time you’re watching a famous orchestra, you should feel lucky if the oboists are sober and the conductor makes it to the coda. Composers should save their money and buy a Synclavier. They go for about the same price, but there’s no robot union (yet) and you can always recoup expenses on Ebay.