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German orchestra causes much discord in Europe

The nonunion Cologne New Philharmonic charges less but pays its musicians less too.

November 23, 2005|Rhea Wessel | Associated Press

COLOGNE, Germany — The last bars of Ravel's "Bolero" had just died away to applause, but when conductor Volker Hartung tried to return to the stage for an encore, dozens of police officers blocked his way and led him from the concert hall in handcuffs.

The German maestro spent the next two nights in jail being questioned for allegedly violating French labor law by underpaying his musicians.

But that, says Hartung, is the whole point -- the musicians of the Cologne New Philharmonic are young freelancers who get to travel and perform live, the public pays less for tickets, and another small step is taken toward fulfilling the vision of the founders of the European Union: free movement of people, goods and services.

"I'm trying to give young people a chance to play and earn a living," Hartung said in an interview. "I'm a musician.... If I wanted to make money, I would be a banker."

But the influential French and German musicians' unions contend that his use of mostly Eastern Europeans at nonunion wages amounts to exploitation.

Hartung and his orchestra continue to tour, but ever since that February night at Strasbourg's Palais de la Musique they have been embroiled in a costly and time-consuming legal mess, and the conductor says his income is down by 50%.

While France is the only country where he has faced charges, several English churches have denied him the right to play there. And although he is allowed to operate as usual in Germany, the musicians' union has waged a persistent campaign against him.

The tour that abruptly ended in Strasbourg had already been to Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, where Hartung's hiring practices raised no eyebrows. Hartung says he took extra precautions for the French leg, securing a collective work permit for his orchestra. But it was revoked without explanation in a fax just hours before the concert was set to start and when it was too late to cancel, he said.

Strasbourg is the home of the European Parliament and a symbol of continental harmony. But French officials -- tipped off by the union, Hartung says -- sent about 80 police officers to arrest him.

Hartung, 49, is married to a Frenchwoman and has performed dozens of concerts in France. "I'm not aware that I have impoverished any French artists," he says.

He claims the union, the Syndicat National des Artistes Musiciens de France or SNAM, is persecuting him because he has managed to fill houses with lower-than-usual prices on their home turf. While other major orchestras charge anything from $21 to $72 for a seat, the Cologne New Philharmonic has just one price -- $24. It opts out of the familiar European formula of state support and job security, gets no state subsidies and relies on box-office receipts alone.

A Strasbourg magistrate eventually dropped the charges of hiring illegal workers, but Hartung says he fears the union may go after him again if he performs in France.

The German union has gone as far as to call work in Hartung's orchestra "a kind of modern slavery."

"We are not against Mr. Hartung as a person. We are against his way of organizing classical music," said Gerald Mertens, the head of the German union Deutsche Orchestervereinigung. Philippe Gautier, assistant secretary general of SNAM, called Hartung's pay scale "scandalous." Both he and Mertens cited a figure as low as $35 a day that appeared in the media after Hartung and his wife were arrested in Nice, France, in 2004 over performances the couple say were training workshops.

The unions say a unionized German or French musician would be paid $120 to $180 a day. Hartung says he pays $95 to $120 per concert.

Alexander Tschernousov, a Russian-born bass player in Hartung's orchestra, said he received at least $95 for the Strasbourg concert plus lodgings, bus transport and two meals a day.

After the Strasbourg concert, he said, he and fellow musicians were interrogated, instruments in hand. "We're musicians, not criminals," Tschernousov said.

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