A Music Rivalry, Conducted from the Grave

The 20th century's most famous conductors both hit posthumous milestones this year. Will Bernstein or Karajan do better dead?

Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan enjoyed fast cars, ocean sailing, skiing, and flying his own private Learjet. On this side of the Atlantic, Leonard Bernstein had an estate in Fairfield, Connecticut, a Park Avenue apartment (now owned by Spencer Hays, executive chairman of Southwestern-Great American, the Nashville-based direct-sales conglomerate), and then a pad in the storied Dakota.

Karajan and Bernstein lived lavishly thanks to their superstar incomes. When Karajan died, in 1989, Der Spiegel reported that his annual income from record sales and conducting fees was "over $6 million." His third wife, Eliette, inherited a fortune now worth about 250 million euros-nearly $400 million-according to a recent article in Die Welt. In his later years, Bernstein earned the world's highest conducting fee, a "basic DM 40,000 (�13,000) per night," or around $100,000 in today's dollars, says Norman Lebrecht in his book The Maestro Myth.

Their fame and paychecks remain unmatched among maestros to this day. Last year, James Levine, music director of both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and New York's Metropolitan Opera, earned a salary of $3.5 million. Lorin Maazel currently gets the most pay from a single source-$2.6 million as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Bitter rivals during their lifetimes, Karajan and Bernstein are posthumously going head-to-head again this year. April 5 marks what would have been Karajan's centenary birthday, while August 25 would have been Bernstein's 90th. And the classical music industry, which has contracted in recent years, is poised to take full advantage.

To recognize Bernstein, Brandeis University will have a dedicated festival from April 9 to 13; musical tributes to him will be included in countless festivals this summer. A new revival of West Side Story will premiere at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., and move to Broadway next year. Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic will present more than 30 performances of his compositions in seven different venues in the fall. And Deutsche Grammophon has recently released a dozen DVDs of Bernstein conducting Schumann, Brahms, and Mozart, as well as a documentary tribute, Leonard Bernstein: The Gift of Music.

While performances such as the Vienna Philharmonic's February 29 concert at Carnegie Hall are being dedicated to Karajan's memory, he wasn't as well-liked, limiting the the commemorations to massive reprinting of recordings. D.G. has a new 10-CD set, Herbert von Karajan Master Recordings, from the 1950s to the 1970s, and that is dwarfed by EMI's massive Karajan set, The Complete EMI Recordings, 1946-1984, totaling 159 CDs, out this month. Bernstein's recordings have already been released in previous years by Sony/BMG Music Entertainment and D.G., placing Karajan ahead in the race for new dollars from music lovers.

As a former Nazi Party member, Karajan is personally unbeloved-hence, the lack of dedicated festivals-but his politics haven't kept record sales low. Rebecca Davis, director of publicity for Universal Music Classical, which owns Deutsche Grammophon, says D.G. has sold between 40 million and 50 million Karajan albums to date, recorded between 1938 and 1943 and from 1959 until his death. One top-selling 1987 compilation album, Adagio, moved about 2 million units, and Karajan still sells 300,000 albums annually for Universal Classics. Karajan has also sold more than 20 million units on EMI Classics of performances recorded between 1946 and 1984, says Graham Southern, catalog director for EMI Classics.

Anja Rittm�ller, D.G.'s vice president of production and catalog, reports that Bernstein has sold about 10 million albums for the company, for which he remains even today a top 10 royalty artist. Although there are no new Bernstein recordings, his catalog "continues to be actively and successfully exploited on audio and video, in both physical and digital formats," Rittm�ller says. The company saw a sales spike last year, the 50th anniversary of West Side Story, which bodes well for this year.

Before signing with D.G., in 1976, Bernstein recorded for RCA and Columbia (more than 500 works for the latter company alone). Both now belong to Sony/BMG, which declines to reveal sales figures.

Bernstein, who was also a successful composer, teacher, and writer, may trump Karajan in potential earnings. Stage works like On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Candide, as well as ballets like Fancy Free, are regularly revived and recorded on CD and DVD. His exuberant public explanations of music in televised young people's concerts and his 1976 Harvard lectures have recently been reprinted on multi-DVD sets from Kultur.

Craig Urquhart, vice president of public relations for Amberson, a New York-based company founded in 1958 to handle Bernstein's business life, confirms that Bernstein's "compositions are performed more" today than during his lifetime. Interest in Bernstein's work keeps the Amberson office staff of seven, various consultants, and Bernstein's three children busy. The children, Urquhart adds, "derive a comfortable living" from the income of the Bernstein estate, although they all pursue separate careers as well.

Selling dead white male conductors has never been more essential to the bottom line than in today's imperiled classical recording industry. No conductors are famous to the degree that their names alone sell albums; in fact, this is also true of all classical music performers. EMI Classics still counts Maria Callas, who died in 1977, among its current top-selling artists, just as SONY/BMG still has various reprints of albums by Glenn Gould, who died in 1982, atop its charts.

"The big stars in classical music who become stars to a broader public like Bernstein, Karajan, or [conductor and violinist Yehudi] Menuhin are extremely interesting, colorful people," Costa Pilavachi, president of EMI Classics, told the Toronto Star in 2007. "It takes a giant of a person who lifts you up and makes you feel fulfilled."

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