They are ‘the for­got­ten mu­si­cians’

Sub­ur­ban groups are small, strug­gling — and pas­sion­ate

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MID­GETTE

Chee-Yun is a Korean-born vi­o­lin­ist who has won an Avery Fisher ca­reer grant, has played with the world’s lead­ing orches­tras and gave a solo recital at the Kennedy Cen­ter in Oc­to­ber. This week, she’s com­ing to an or­ches­tra — or two — near you.

Not the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, but the smaller Na­tional Phil­har­monic, with which she is play­ing Vi­valdi’s “Four Sea­sons” at Strath­more this week­end (the last con­cert is Sun­day at 3 p.m.). And not the Bal­ti­more Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, but the Fair­fax Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, with which she will play Wal­ton’s Vi­o­lin Con­certo on Satur­day at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity, just 23 miles from Strath­more.

These orches­tras— with an­nual op­er­at­ing bud­gets of $2 mil­lion and $1.2 mil­lion re­spec­tively, as op­posed to the NSO’s $30 mil­lion — are the largest of some 25 small orches­tras in the Washington re­gion, rang­ing from pro­fes­sional en­sem­bles to am­a­teur com­mu­nity groups.

“I think we’re sort of the for­got­ten mu­si­cians some­times,” says Adri­enne Sommerville, a vi­o­list who plays with the Na­tional Phil­har­monic, the Kennedy Cen­ter Opera House Or­ches­tra, the Mary­land Sym­phony and, at times, the BSO, among oth­ers.

Small orches­tras are a key part of clas­si­cal mu­sic’s ecosys­tem. A full 80 per­cent of the mem­ber­ship of the League of Amer­i­can Orches­tras, the na­tional ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion, are groups with bud­gets of $2 mil­lion or less. They don’t play nearly as many con­certs as their larger brethren — that 80 per­cent rep­re­sents only 20 per­cent of League mem­bers’ per­for­mances — and no one would claim they’re as good as, say, the NSO (though you’d be sur­prised how many have a fe­wof the same play­ers). But they face many of the same chal­lenges: de­clin­ing au­di­ences, fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, a de­sire to help train young mu­si­cians and win new au­di­ences for clas­si­cal mu­sic.

These days, small orches­tras have a lot of traits that larger orches­tras are in­creas­ingly try­ing to em­u­late. In 2003, the Knight Foun­da­tion is­sued a sober­ing re­port out­lin­ing rad­i­cal changes that orches­tras might have to un­dergo to sur­vive in the 21st cen­tury: play­ing a range of dif­fer­ent mu­sic in dif­fer­ent venues; fo­cus­ing on com­mu­nity re­la­tions; work­ing on ed­u­ca­tional strate­gies — all things that many small orches­tras al­ready have.

This cer­tainly doesn’t mean that small orches­tras are bet­ter equipped than large ones to weather the cur­rent fi­nan­cial cli­mate. Many are strug­gling, a cou­ple have folded, and free­lancers who play in the pro­fes­sional ones tell of less work and lower pay scales. Mu­si­cians, says Sommerville, are “ne­go­ti­at­ing pay cuts and pay freezes so these groups can stay above wa­ter.” For one Na­tional Phil­har­monic con­cert last spring, some play­ers do­nated their ser­vices.

But small orches­tras do have one thing go­ing for them. They rep­re­sent am­a­teurism in the orig­i­nal sense of the word: a gen­uine love of mak­ing mu­sic.

“I feel like the am­a­teur play­ers in McLean are ac­tu­ally more se­ri­ous than the pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians about mu­sic,” says vi­o­lin­ist Regino Madrid, a pro­fes­sional who plays with theMarine Cham­ber Or­ches­tra and is also the con­cert­mas­ter of the semipro­fes­sional McLean Or­ches­tra.

And that gen­uine en­joy­ment is some­times re­flected in per­for­mances, even if they’re not tech­ni­cally as per­fect as those of larger orches­tras.

“I go to the NSO and it’s fine,” said Pat Ed­wards, a board mem­ber of the An­napo­lis Sym­phony, a $1.2 mil­lion pro­fes­sional or­ches­tra that will cel­e­brate its 50th an­niver­sary in 2011-12. “I go to the An­napo­lis Sym­phony, and it’s fun.”

It’s hard to gen­er­al­ize about small orches­tras. Am­a­teur orches­tras aren’t nec­es­sar­ily smaller than pro­fes­sional ones: The Prince Ge­orge’s Phil­har­monic in Mary­land, a com­mu­nity or­ches­tra, has a big­ger op­er­at­ing bud­get ($150,000) than the all-pro­fes­sional Vir­ginia Cham­ber Or­ches­tra ($100,000). And am­a­teur orches­tras aren’t nec­es­sar­ily safer from fi­nan­cial duress: The Prince Ge­orge’s Phil­har­monic had to make staff cuts last sea­son.

The NOVA Manas­sas Sym­phony Or­ches­tra is one am­a­teur group that has come through the re­ces­sion rel­a­tively un­scathed. In­deed, its bud­get has risen from $10,000 to $60,000 in six years, mainly be­cause it was ready­ing it­self for higher fees charged by the Hyl­ton Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, its new per­for­mance home.

The new hall is a mixed bless­ing. Andy Lo­erch, the or­ches­tra’s prin­ci­pal bas­soon­ist and pub­lic­ity com­mit­tee chair (by day an en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity) wryly ob­serves that the echoes in Grace United Methodist Church in Manas­sas, where the group used to per­form, bet­ter hid mis­takes. But the hall does en­able the or­ches­tra to seat twice as many — from a few hun­dred to more than a thou­sand — and at­ten­dance has soared at the group’s first two con­certs there.

This in­equity be­tween Prince Ge­orge’s and NOVA Manas­sas seems to be the na­tional norm. Ac­cord­ing to League spokes­woman Ju­dith Kur­nick, half of the 14 orches­tras on the League’s ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee “were re­port­ing pos­i­tive re­sults this year; some had sur­pluses, record at­ten­dance goals, and oth­ers were al­most at death’s door.”

Vari­able, too, is the qual­ity. There are top-notch small orches­tras around Washington — the Eclipse Cham­ber Or­ches­tra, founded and con­ducted by NSO

Small orches­tras rep­re­sent am­a­teurism in the orig­i­nal sense of the word: a gen­uine love of mak­ing mu­sic.

horn player Sylvia Ali­mena, is made up of NSO play­ers in­ter­ested in vary­ing their mu­si­cal diet. A com­mu­nity or­ches­tra like NOVA Manas­sas, by con­trast, is mainly of in­ter­est to the neigh­bor­hood.

Fi­nan­cial cri­sis, though, has helped raise qual­ity, in a way. With fewer and fewer per­ma­nent or­ches­tra jobs avail­able, more tal­ented in­stru­men­tal­ists are be­com­ing free­lancers— or opt­ing to pur­sue an­other ca­reer and play in a com­mu­nity or­ches­tra on the side.

To­day, “even com­mu­nity orches­tras,” says A. Scott Wood, who con­ducts the pro­fes­sional Amadeus Or­ches­tra and Ar­ling­ton Phil­har­monic, as well as a cou­ple of com­mu­nity orches­tras, “some­times rise to a level that would have made the NSO proud when they started.”

Mu­si­cians in com­mu­nity orches­tras have day jobs, meet once a week to re­hearse and con­vene for an ex­tra re­hearsal the day be­fore a con­cert. But for pro­fes­sional free­lancers — re­hears­ing three or four times the week be­fore a con­cert with one group, then mov­ing on to the next — piec­ing to­gether a liv­ing isn’t easy. Mu­si­cians get $75 to $100 for a ser­vice, some­times less for a re­hearsal, and salaries are fall­ing. As area cho­ruses rely less on or­ches­tral ac­com­pa­ni­ment, and theWash­ing­ton Bal­let has cut out live mu­sic, there are fewer per­for­mance op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Yet these days, even a steady or­ches­tra job is no guar­an­tee of job se­cu­rity. “Of course it would be nice to land a big gig,” says Ed Malaga, a dou­ble-bass player with the Kennedy Cen­ter Opera House Or­ches­tra, who some­times plays with the NSO, the BSO, the Na­tional Phil­har­monic and other groups. But “when I think of some of the places I was con­sid­er­ing, and see that they’re in trou­ble, like Colum­bus . . . ” — the Colum­bus Sym­phony re­cently cut its play­ers’ salaries by 27 per­cent — “maybe the sta­bil­ity comes from not hav­ing sta­bil­ity,” Malaga says. “If I’m part of 10 groups, which I am or have been, then if one has dif­fi­culty, there’s an­other group that will be able to

get me through.”

Malaga and his wife, a cel­list, are both free­lancers. They are rais­ing two chil­dren, and mak­ing it work.

Yet mu­sic di­rec­tors also need to cater to the more con­ser­va­tive tastes of their au­di­ences. Piotr Ga­jew­ski says the Na­tional Phil­har­monic gets 60 per­cent of its rev­enue from ticket sales — for many orches­tras, that fig­ure is only 15 or 20 per­cent — and his au­di­ences won’t buy tick­ets for un­fa­mil­iar work. Joel Lazar, an­other con­duc­tor, says the sub­ur­ban au­di­ence’s con­cep­tion of the stan­dard reper­tory cuts off about 40 years ear­lier than that in a ma­jor ur­ban cen­ter.

When Ga­jew­ski pro­grams less­known things, he has to find a mar­ket­ing an­gle. Next year’s per­for­mance of De­bussy’s “Le Mar­tyre de Saint Se­bastien” will be of­fered in the con­text of a small De­bussy fes­ti­val mar­keted through the French Em­bassy and to the Catholic com­mu­nity.

Ga­jew­ski may have a harder time be­cause tick­ets to the Na­tional Phil­har­monic are more ex­pen­sive. The or­ches­tra of­fers 36 con­certs a year in­stead of the four or five pre­sented by most of these smaller groups, and this week­end’s high­est ticket price is $79. Fair­fax’s high­est price for next week­end is $55. But most small orches­tras cost far less: You can hear the Eclipse Cham­ber Or­ches­tra on March 6 for $25; and the Washington Metropoli­tan Phil­har­monic, since 2008, has of­fered its con­certs free. Peo­ple are more will­ing to take a chance on un­known reper­tory if it’s not cost­ing them a lot of money.

In any case, not ev­ery con­duc­tor is as wary as Ga­jew­ski of the less-known. “I can say hap­pily, and I hope not reck­lessly, that there’s noth­ing I wouldn’t pro­gram,” says Christo­pher Zim­mer­man, mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Fair­fax Sym­phony, who is of­fer­ing We­bern’s Six Pieces for Or­ches­tra, a spare, atonal work, along­side Beethoven and Si­belius at his next con­cert on March 19.

New mu­sic of­fers other chal­lenges for a small or­ches­tra. First, you may not be able to af­ford it: It’s more ex­pen­sive to rent mu­sic still un­der copy­right. “It’s a ma­jor event fis­cally to do [Strauss’s] ‘Four Last Songs’ and the Shostakovich First Cello Con­certo with the Sym­phony of the Po­tomac,” says Lazar, who has led that all-vol­un­teer or­ches­tra, for­merly the JCC Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, for many years and who con­ducts the newer Washington Sin­foni­etta and Ars Nova Cham­ber Or­ches­tra.

Sec­ond, your mu­si­cians might not be able to play it; and if they work hard enough at it to learn it, it may be at the ex­pense of the other pieces on the pro­gram. “If a ma­jor or­ches­tra does an ex­tremely com­pli­cated work,” Lazar says, “ they can do Tchaikovsky” on the same pro­gram — “ they have it in their fin­gers,” so it needs rel­a­tively lit­tle re­hearsal. “We don’t have that rou­tine,” Lazar adds. “You’re en­sem­ble-build­ing con­stantly. . . . You’re hav­ing to in­vent the wheel to a cer­tain ex­tent all the time.”

His­tor­i­cally, new mu­sic hasn’t al­ways been for­eign to Washington’s smaller orches­tras. The Na­tional Gallery of Art Or­ches­tra, es­tab­lished in 1943, gave the firstever per­for­mance of Charles Ives’s First Sym­phony some 10 years later.

The orches­tras them­selves aren’t new at all. The Alexan­dria and Fair­fax Sym­phonies were founded in 1954 and 1957, re­spec­tively; the string en­sem­ble of Washington’s Fri­day Morn­ing Mu­sic Club has been go­ing strong since 1943. While new groups are al­ways spring­ing up — Ars Nova, the Washington Sin­foni­etta and Coun­ter­Point have started since 2006 — the ma­jor­ity were founded be­fore 1990.

They have been home to some dy­namic mu­si­cal per­son­al­i­ties. Barry Tuck­well, the in­ter­na­tion­ally known horn player, founded the Mary­land Sym­phony in 1982 and led it un­til 1998 (it’s now un­der the ba­ton of El­iz­a­beth Schulze, a for­mer as­so­ci­ate con­duc­tor at the NSO). Leon Fleisher, the fa­mous pi­anist, was mu­sic di­rec­tor of the An­napo­lis Sym­phony for 12 sea­sons.

There have also been dra­matic schisms. In 1986, the con­duc­tor Ding­wall Fleary, who founded the McLean Or­ches­tra in 1971, had a run-in with the board about mak­ing the or­ches­tra more pro­fes­sional and quit — fol­lowed by nearly all of the mu­si­cians. Fleary re­con­sti­tuted his group as the all-vol­un­teerMcLean Sym­phony; the board found new mu­si­cians to con­tinue the McLean Or­ches­tra, which is now semi-pro­fes­sional.

That or­ches­tra reached new heights un­der Eclipse’s Ali­mena, who also served as McLean’s mu­sic di­rec­tor for seven sea­sons, but in 2010 she and the cash-strapped board were un­able to reach terms over her con­tract re­newal, and the or­ches­tra is look­ing for a new mu­sic di­rec­tor. Its ad­min­is­tra­tive leader is John Hul­ing, a for­mer trom­bon­ist with the NSO who has been through his own life drama: His per­form­ing ca­reer was cut short when his son ac­ci­den­tally bat­ted a base­ball into his mouth.

Small orches­tras, just like big ones, are try­ing to rein­vent them­selves. Both the Fair­fax Sym­phony and the Alexan­dria Sym­phony are plan­ning long-range change: dif­fer­ent kinds of con­certs, new venues, the ad­di­tion of cham­ber en­sem­bles.

“Ev­ery­thing is on the ta­ble,” says Adrien Fin­lay, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Alexan­dria Sym­phony, even a name change: The group will soon be known as Sym­phon­ica Nova. It will thus join the ranks of small orches­tras mov­ing away from lo­cal brand­ing, fol­low­ing the Mont­gomery Cham­ber Or­ches­tra-cum-Na­tional Phil­har­monic and the for­mer Mount Ver­non Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, now the Washington Metropoli­tan Phil­har­monic. These groups may be lo­cal, but it helps, ev­i­dently, to sound as big as pos­si­ble. Even the NOVA Manas­sas Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, Lo­erch says, ex­pe­ri­enced a big jump in in­ter­est and mem­ber­ship af­ter it changed its name from NOVA Manas­sas Com­mu­nity Or­ches­tra.

Re­brand­ing may be a way to mask the fact that in their ac­tual makeup, there’s not that much dif­fer­ence be­tween one or­ches­tra and an­other, as many of them draw on the same pool of free­lancers. “Whether you’re go­ing to the Post-Clas­si­cal En­sem­ble or [the] Fair­fax [Sym­phony] or the Alexan­dria Sym­phony or the Na­tional Phil­har­monic,” says Malaga, the bass player, “you see a lot of the same peo­ple show up.”

And in­deed, many of the groups are ea­ger to col­lab­o­rate with other in­sti­tu­tions. Given the high cost of ad­ver­tis­ing, such col­lab­o­ra­tion is a cost-ef­fec­tive way to get your name in front of a wider pub­lic. sea­son, the Amadeus Or­ches­tra was plan­ning a per­for­mance of Karl Jenk­ins’s “Mass for Peace” with a con­sor­tium of lo­cal choirs. Then Wood, the con­duc­tor, learned that the Vi­enna Choral So­ci­ety had sched­uled the same work for the pre­ced­ing day.

“I called up the mu­sic di­rec­tor,” Wood says, “and said, ‘ We should think of do­ing some­thing to­gether.’ ” The groups joined forces and of­fered two per­for­mances, one at each venue, with or­ches­tra and dou­ble choir.

Soloists, too, are so­lic­i­tous of smaller orches­tras as an im­por­tant part of the world they move in. At the Na­tional Phil­har­monic, which is search­ing for a con­cert­mas­ter, Nu­rit Bar-Josef, the NSO con­cert­mas­ter, has been fill­ing in at some con­certs, sup­port­ing a lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion and her new hus­band, ErichHeckscher, who is the or­ches­tra’s prin­ci­pal bas­soon­ist.

The star vi­o­lin­ist Mi­dori has started a res­i­den­cies pro­gram to work with smaller orches­tras and youth orches­tras with com­bined bud­gets of un­der $4.5 mil­lion; she’ll be com­ing to the Alexan­dria Sym­phony, or rather Sym­phon­ica Nova, in 2012.

Chee-Yun’s dou­ble ap­pear­ances this week, there­fore, may be a sign of the times. Fair­fax’s Zim­mer­man, for one, isn’t too both­ered about the over­lap; in his view, it sim­ply spot­lights the dif­fer­ent pro­files of the two orches­tras, as the vi­o­lin­ist plays a warhorse with the Na­tional Phil­har­monic and a less fa­mil­iar work with Fair­fax. The orches­tras both get a big name; the artist gets wider ex­po­sure, and ev­ery­body wins.

“Hur­ray for us,” says El­iz­a­beth Mur­phy, the Fair­fax Sym­phony’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, “ that we both got her.”



AM­BI­TIOUS: “I can say hap­pily ... that there’s noth­ing I wouldn’t pro­gram,” says Christo­pher Zim­mer­man of the Fair­fax Sym­phony Or­ches­tra.


PRICIER TICK­ETS: Piotr Ga­jew­ski con­ducts the Na­tional Phil­har­monic at Strath­more. With 36 con­certs a year, the or­ches­tra of­fers more than most small groups, and ticket prices are more ex­pen­sive.

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