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Playing Kravis’s Tune

Last Tuesday, the New York Philharmonic celebrated the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music by performing works by this year’s recipient, the distinguished French composer, Henri Duttileux. According to the press release issued for the occasion, M. Duttilleux graciously shared the $200,000 award with younger composers Peter Eötvös, Anthony Cheung and Franck Krawczyk.  It also announced the winner of the Kravis Emerging Composer award supporting a $50,000 commission for a work to be performed on the Philharmonic’s regular subscription concert series.

All this was cause for celebration by the new music community, our little corner of Facebook lit up with congratulations to the prizewinners along with some sotto voce expressions of hope that this would mark a return to the halcyon days when economic elites were reliable and generous commissioners of new works for orchestra.

It came as little surprise that the focus of the discussion was on the recipients with virtually no mention of the donor who was footing the bill, Mr. Henry Kravis. As I have discussed elsewhere, composers are reluctant to discuss this and related subjects and generally display little interest in them.  In this particular instance, ignorance, while not exactly bliss, is, probably preferable to consciousness.  For while the money acquired by the rich is rarely clean that of Henry Kravis is perhaps a bit more odoriferous than most, and so exploring the means by which it was obtained, as I will do here, is by no means a pleasant task.

But before doing so, it is worth noting one phrase in the NY Phil’s press release, namely conductor Alan Gilbert’s  “appreciation and admiration of the commitment of Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis to music in general, and to new music in particular. Their remarkably generous gift has made it possible to celebrate the richness of today’s compositional work.”

The phrase that sticks out from the boilerplate prose is “remarkably generous.” Of course, in absolute terms, what was probably a mid-to-high seven figure donation is generous. In relative terms, it is worth keeping in mind Mr. Kravis’s possession of assets which are, according to Forbes, in the mid-to-high ten figure range. As such, his gift amounts to something on the order of one tenth of one percent of his net worth.  For the median family with total assets in the low six figure range, this would be equivalent to our slipping a few dollars to a homeless man, or dropping a few coins in the church collection plate, a charitable exercise which would not, of course, register in the smallest local broadsheet or most insignificant blog, much less the New York Times.  But, as is well known, those of Mr. Kravis stature are exempt from this application of the laws of arithmetic.  A minimal charitable exertion brings them great acclaim and, not incidentally, considerable favorable public relations-not an insignificant calculation in an age of increasing, albeit highly unfocussed, public hostility to those a president several generations back identified as “malefactors of great wealth.”

That composers might be only dimly aware of Mr. Kravis is at least partly due to concerted efforts to limit public awareness of his enterprises, so that these and other charitable exercises reflecting favorably on him.   Even so, over the years, Mr. Kravis’s business practices and extravagant lifestyle have found themselves in the public eye, most conspicuously via his appearances in three iconic portrayals of plutocratic excess of the 1980s:  Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities which lampoons Mr. Kravis’s oversight of the renovations in his Park Ave. apartment, Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” where the character of Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas was in part inspired by Mr. Kravis, and the 1990 book and later HBO film Barbarians at the Gate which delves into the mechanics of Mr. Kravis’s role in the $31.4 billion purchase of RJR Nabisco.  Most recently, the Robert Greenwald short film “The Homes of Henry Kravis,” counterposing Mr. Kravis’s inconceivable wealth and conspicuous consumption with the increasingly hardscrabble circumstances of average working people would be viewed by hundreds of thousands on youtube.

The cumulative effect of these less than favorable portrayals has been a widespread negative public perception of Mr. Kravis and other “corporate raiders” as they were known two decades ago.  Insofar as the broad public would become aware of the leveraged buyouts (LBOs) pioneered by Mr. Kravis and perfected by him at his firm KKR, they were viewed by most as having made little productive contribution to the economy, serving mainly to enrich investors, often at the expense of workers who would be victimized by lay offs and sharp reductions in wages and benefits.  Furthermore, due to a loophole in the tax code, the massive compensation accruing to principals in the firms is subject only to the capital gains tax, at a rate substantially lower than that assessed to the lowliest members of Mr. Kravis household staff.

One indication that LBO firms were concerned with the potential for a public backlash directed against them can be seen in their having re-branded themselves with the more wholesome, focus group tested name “private equity”. The Carlyle Group, Bain Capital, Blackstone Group and others whose business model is based on what Bloomberg refers to as “the Kravis playbook” are routinely identified in press reports not as “corporate raiders”, “leveraged buy out artists” or “junk bond kings” but as PE groups.  But even after a substantial and no doubt costly effort to repair its image, the industry remains widely regarded as amoral and predatory.  That an association with it remains a significant liability can be seen in the current presidential election where Bain is being successfully exploited as a proxy for corporate malfeasance, greed, and ruthlessness.

Furthermore, a glaring target for politicians seeking to benefit from the populist discontent expressed most forcefully by the Occupy movement would seem to be the carried interest deduction referred to above, the repeal of which is viewed by the private equity fraternity as “equivalent to the Nazi invasion of Poland” in the notorious words of a Park Avenue neighbor of Mr. Kravis.  That no challenges to it have been successful thus far is indicative of the overwhelming power and influence of finance capitalists, not to mention huge campaign contributions from the likes of Mr. Kravis.  But a constant insertion of fingers in various dykes is required to insure that public perception of private equity does not find political expression, and Kravis and others are surely willing and, of course, able to assume the cost required to do so.

The managing of public discontent against Wall Street excesses involves action on two fronts, the most conspicuous of which is the violent repression directed against the Occupy movement of the last six months. In addition, it also requires a velvet glove in the form of softening the harsh, forbidding exterior of plutocrats by demonstrating their commitment to “high” artistic culture–in Matthew Arnold phrase “the best which has been thought and said.”    And it is in reference to this latter category that Mr. Kravis’s donations to arts institutions should be seen.

Whether or not we are aware of it, those accepting his largesse are, therefore, participants in a broader co-optation strategy.  By saying this, I want to stress that I am in no way suggesting that that the recipients of the Kravis Prize should consider for one moment rejecting it.  Indeed, in the extremely unlikely event that I were one of the composers chosen, I would accept it without a second’s thought.

What I am suggesting are, rather, two responses.  First, the acceptance of it and similar awards needs to be accompanied by an awareness of who Henry Kravis is, the class which he represents, the extreme damage which they have inflicted and of the agenda which they are pursuing through their ostensible generosity. Composers might consider augmenting their pro forma thank you note to the benefactors with a public statement indicating that they are accepting the prize with no illusions as to the larger strategy they are functioning within.

Second, and more positively, accepting the prize should be accompanied by an awareness of the power which composers can play within movements to achieve economic and social justice.  For if we are not aware of this potential, we can be sure that the better informed members of Mr. Kravis’s class are.  They are aware, for example of the role of Verdi in the Italian resorgimento, of Mozart in undermining the pretensions of the feudal aristocracy and of numerous composers here, from Aaron Copland, Mark Blitzstein to Kurt Weill in creating the cultural front ferment of the 1930s leading to the implementation of New Deal reforms.  While it is no longer comparable to what it once was, some of this potential remains, as recently demonstrated by Phillip Glass’s remarkable expression of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street encouraging a full house at the Met to engage in mass civil disobedience following the final performance of his opera Sathayagraha.

Not all of us will have acquired through our work the social and cultural capital such that relatively small expressions of dissent on our part will be amplified in significance to be seen as acts of conscience, covered respectfully in the New York Times and attracting a large group of followers. Those composers who are ascending the ladder which will, at best, confer this status on them should be aware of this potential, and, arguably, their responsibility to use it wisely.

JOHN HALLE teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music and lives in the Hudson Valley.  He can be reached at: halle@bard.edu.

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John Halle blogs at Outrages and Interludes. He tweets at: jghalle.

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