The Incredible Shrinking Orchestra

My Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bass section should have eight players. That’s standard for a major symphony orchestra. It takes all eight of us, sweating, straining, pulling every decibel of tone out of our big, cumbersome instruments to even begin to balance the low brass that sit perched behind us, the trombones and tuba that belt out that bold, exultant sound that makes audiences get goosebumps and leap to their feet at the end of Shostakovich 5 or Pictures at an Exhibition. And our low brass can really deliver. They deliver so thoroughly that by the end of an evening trying to balance the sound that the conductor demands from them, my ears are ringing, my back aches, and the tendons in my wrists and elbows are begging for Advil.

My bass section should have eight players. But right now we have five. Five to do the work of eight. Not to get too personal, but in the past two seasons we’ve lost two to cancer and one to retirement. And one of the remaining five is dealing with a job-induced repetitive stress injury. And another is anticipating retirement very soon.

So, we hire substitute players. And we hire the best. Atlanta’s not known as a particularly benevolent environment for freelancers. And the incredibly talented and versatile local players we call usually have day jobs, teaching our kids from pre-k through college and beyond, making an incalculable contribution to our culture, and traveling around the entire southeast, making sure that great music is available to everyone in Atlanta and beyond. So, when our cherished local colleagues aren’t available, we often have to hire subs from other parts of the country, sometimes flying them (and their huge, oversized instrument cases) to Atlanta, putting them up in hotels, paying for parking vouchers. And since many of the subs we use can only commit to a week here or there, when they can easily take weeks off from their orchestra jobs in Miami or San Antonio, we end up paying for more flights, and our section looks like it has a revolving door at the back.

And, talented as these subs are, they aren’t steeped in the music-making culture and traditions of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; they don’t always blend their sound the right way, they don’t bounce their bows at the same angle in martele passages, they hold ties a bit longer than we do in Mozart, they don’t appreciate the fine distinction that our Music Director expects us to make between sforzando and fortepiano in Brahms. Sort of like a championship baseball team trying to turn a triple play with an All-Pro shortstop that was just traded from another team. He may be a phenomenal player, but we’ve been turning that triple play together for years. So we spend time we shouldn’t have to clearing up these little discrepancies, time we should be spending unifying our interpretation to the conductor’s vision.

And when our chorus, the mighty Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the best chorus in the world, the chorus whose legendary recordings are used as reference by God’s heavenly choir of angels, performs with us, these subs aren’t necessarily as accustomed to the subtleties of technique that such a collaboration demands. We lifers, we know how to blend with the chorus, how to support them, how to breathe with them, how to make miracles happen. I’ve seen more than one sub simply stop playing and simply listen, dazzled into paralysis by the staggering beauty of the music coming from that chorus. I myself reacted that way in my first season with the ASO.

And when a piece is programmed that calls for a smaller complement, something Baroque perhaps, and we lifers should look forward to some well-earned respite, when we can put down those cumbersome, injury-inducing instruments and go backstage to ice our shoulders, instead, we pull extra duty, staying on stage to better preserve the integrity of the cherished ASO sound. And so we’re even more prone to injury, and so the cycle perpetuates.

And our management – not our artistic management, mind you, but our un-artistic President, wants to have total control in determining whether we replace missing players. No sensible observer has any doubt that he would exert that control to do the “fiscally responsible” thing: shrinking the orchestra. Turning us into a lean, mean, mediocrity machine.

I wonder how it is that by further reducing the complement, the number of career ASO musicians dedicated to this community, the WAC hopes to save money? By avoiding programming the big, bombastic Romantic-era warhorses that sell out concerts, in favor of more modestly orchestrated pre-1820-or-so music? And by sacrificing the brilliant luster and the uncanny ensemble skills of a legendary orchestra in favor of a shrinking, demoralized, propped-up community band?

Why would audiences get excited about that? Why would donors trying to preserve and perpetuate great art be interested in supporting that?

My five-member bass section has a total of ONE HUNDRED SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS of service to the city of Atlanta. And we apply to every performance everything we’ve learned in those years, every nuance, every missing accent, every awkward page turn. That’s what makes the ASO better than good; it puts us on a level with the greatest orchestras in the most cultured cities in the world.

And that’s what’s at stake here. That’s the iceberg that our WAC leadership is steering us into – the wholesale destruction of a legendary institution seven decades in the making. They get the lifeboats, the city of Atlanta gets the frigid sea.



34 responses to “The Incredible Shrinking Orchestra

  1. A point of clarification: It was SO not my intent to offend freelancers. Atlanta needs a world-class freelance scene just like it needs a world-class orchestra; the two are mutually beneficial. My point was simply that, especially for bass players, the Atlanta scene hasn’t historically provided enough work to sustain many full-time freelancers. I’m sure the ASO personnel manager would agree, as well as the freelance bassists in town who deserve more chances to perform.


  2. Thanks for your articulate commentary and best wishes to you all.


  3. What a well written article… I will save to share with my board at the National Philharmonic


  4. Very illuminating insights for those of us who never had the privilege of playing bass, or any orchestral instrument, in such a high-quality ensemble. And, as a 15-year veteran of the ASOC, I thank you for your comments about us. We are nothing without your firm foundation, and the admiration is mutual, I assure you.


  5. But your article IS insulting to freelancers in Atlanta. And condescending as well. You should be careful; you could be joining our ranks.


    • Sorry, you’re right. Freelancers are as talented, dedicated, and hard-working as anyone, and more. Post has been revised, insensitivities corrected, apologies offered.


    • I would liken this to professional sports, a somewhat relatable performance-based industry. I think what was being said was not that the subs are without the requisite talent to play with the group (otherwise, wouldn’t they have called someone else?), but that chemistry is a crucial part of section playing. Lebron was unable to start winning rings until he built tangible chemistry with other members of his team in Miami; chemistry he never really built in Cleveland. Even stars can’t come in and instantly learn a system. I love the Ormandy/Philadelphia string reference used by Gary Press; dead-on true. Orchestra-wide playing concepts (which Robert Shaw largely build the ASO upon), panoramic sound relationships, extremely fine levels of tuning; these things aren’t perfected in 8-player sections overnight, or in a week, or in a month.

      In fact, the comment that I found most offensive on this page was your last sentence. “You should be careful; you could be joining our ranks.”

      Please realize that the ASO has now twice fallen victim to a systemic and organized effort to force artist concessions of both money and organizational control (which musicians rarely get much of anyway). This is an organization that is clearly in need of all possible forms of support from the orchestral community at large. The comment of discussion is in no way necessary, and is absolutely unhelpful to the musicians that are currently out of their jobs; nor does it seek to repair what those who were upset by the article seem to consider a schism between ASO and freelance musicians. In fact, the tone of this statement reflects that of a threat; whether truly intended or not.

      I might instead propose the building of a network of support and solidarity. Because anyone that thinks that this is the last time that the orchestral model in the U.S. will be challenged either hasn’t been paying attention (Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Paul, Minnesota, Atlanta now twice), or simply doesn’t understand the underlying motif in the orchestral administration scene. There are a lot of people on the upper end of orchestras in this country that want to (and have been trying to) see a titan fall; that want to see de-unionization and the acquisition of as much organizational control as possible being taken from the musicians. The impact of this will spread far beyond those who have jobs in major orchestras, and even regional orchestras. A huge model change would also significantly affect freelancers. There are extremely few truly “safe places”; in my opinion, the only safety that a musician can count on is their own efforts to arm themselves by learning as much as they can about the negotiation process, the activities of boards and administrations, and anything they directly do to beneficially further the careers of fellow orchestral musicians. I would ask that all musicians keep this in mind; there can’t really be different teams of musicians going forward. Because over the next ten years, challenges will continue to be pushed on the musicians, typically by those that sign the checks. And the only way I see out of it is strength in knowledge and numbers.


  6. I find this to be an incredibly articulate and sensitively worded piece that hits the nail on the head. Focusing on the bottomline at the expense of the product is a recipe for demise or, at best, mediocrity. Personally, I think you did a really fine job of acknowledging the talent and value of the first rate freelancers in the Atlanta area and how when those folks (who clearly understand the culture and sound of this great orchestra better than those not local) aren’t available, it becomes necessary to go outside of the area to top-notch freelancers who have to step in and try to assimilate quickly. Its akin to asking a string player from another part of the country to step in as a subsitute for Ormandy’s Philadelphians back in the 60’s and to fit into the “Ormandy Sound” concept instantly. A very tall order!

    Nicely done and I’ll be sharing this far and wide!


  7. Michael, Thanks for sharing what a concert means to bass players as well as others. Perhaps Stanley and Virginia should try doing what you all do so well.


  8. Freelancers are hardworking, dedicated and talented, but it’s true that you can hear the difference between a pick-up orchestra and one that has been playing together for years. I didn’t read the original version and saw this post after the revisions, but I think the points you make about bringing in subs are valid and worth arguing. If ASO management wants a glorified pick-up orchestra playing Mahler with three rehearsals, they will end up spending way more flying people in than they would just to pay a fair wage to the world-class people already sitting in the chairs.


  9. Michael,

    I see why some may be offended but I think the larger point here is that the ASO ( and other orchestras) don’t help foster the freelance scene as much as they could.

    We see an extreme example of this in many of the smaller orchestras with in the 2-4 hours drive of Atlanta. Those orchestras are stocked with freelancers from ATL’s( and other towns) rather strong freelance scene, despite many talented people that could perform at, or better, than the same standard that are local. These people are not hired by audition, but by friendships, cliques(Chattanooga anyone?), etc….Your post is based on the same basic premiss and assumption, which is local people aren’t up to snuff, which is untrue. Given the chance, many people in Atlanta could easily meet the ASO’s standard, and some of those freelances could may even play better than you! You presume that because you are in the ASO you must know about all local people and if they are to your standard or not. That, no matter how you reword it, is offensive!

    My suggestion would be for all orchestras, if you want a vibrate freelance scene that will foster talent to fill in your roster and strengthen your group you need to have regular sub auditions. Simple as that.


    • My post was actually not based on the premise, as you suggest, that local people aren’t up to snuff. If I gave that impression, let me correct it: Atlanta has excellent freelancers. They are every bit as talented as symphony players, they are versatile, they are welcome, they are valued, and we couldn’t do what we do without them.
      I’ve been playing bass in the ASO for 20 years, and I’m aware that the young players auditioning today can play circles around me. I used to be good at playing auditions. Now I’m good at my job – playing bass in the ASO. When I won my job, I was young and conceited and assumed I was better than my colleagues; now, after two decades of living in the job, I realize that it’s about so much more than being the best player at the audition. It’s about the years spent on stage with the same people, growing in intimacy and comfort, breathing the same music in and out of years.
      That’s why it takes more than an audition to win a job in most orchestras. In the ASO, everyone who wins the audition plays at least one trial week with the section. We spend time with them, have lunch, drink a beer, get to know them, see how they blend, both musically and personally. Then, if a job is offered, they spend two seasons on probation, just to make sure they’re a good fit.
      I totally agree that we should have regular sub auditions. You’re right that this would foster talent and encourage a vibrant freelance scene. I also think this would strengthen ties between those of us who don’t get out much, married to our jobs, and players who have a lot of talent and hard-won insight.


    • Musical Transplant

      So great to see some honest commenuts here. Having been a freelancer in other areas and then moving here, Atlanta is a uniquely frustrating situation. There are several musicians in the area who perform at or above the level of the ASO musicians. However, out of all the ones I know, ONY ONE was ever granted an auditon at the ASO, and he was concertmaster of a national European orchestra. Very few are asked to sub, and the impression


  10. … And yes 10 violins playing louder may have the same volume as 20 violins playing not so loud… 20 violins playing soft has a different sound quality that 10 violins playing louder will have, even though they total up to the same volume…it is a different flavor…and composers write music expecting those different flavored to be available…

    Sort of like Van Gogh “blue” and house paint “blue”


  11. As a bassist who also plays in an orch where our section should be bigger– this spoke to me deeply– of course especially in light of all the travesties going on in Atlanta Sym situations now. Thank you for writing this.


  12. I think it should be noted that substitute players play for substantially lower pay at the ASO.


    • Sadly true. This is the case in most orchestras. When I had my trial weeks with the ASO in spring and summer of 1994, I (as a sub) was paid the same scale as the symphony members. A few years later, they changed their policy, and now subs earn a per-service rate, with no benefits.
      Other sources have posted detailed info about how the Woodruff Arts Center is diverting money from the ASO budget. If we had a parent organization that actually wanted us to thrive (and it’s not like they lack the resources), that’s one important area that should be addressed.


  13. Thomas Jackson: I take exception to your description of the Chattanooga Symphony as being filled with players who got their jobs only because they “knew someone.” Just because we aren’t the big bad ASO doesn’t mean we don’t have auditions and look for the best available players. As with any semi -pro orchestra, we have our personnel issues. We aren’t paid at the same level as the ASO. But you know what? We are playing a concert next week with Yo Yo Ma. What’s the ASO doing?

    David Hobbs
    Principal Trumpet
    Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra


    • David: personally, I’ll be wishing I was playing a concert with Yo-Yo Ma! Hope it’s a gratifying and inspiring experience for all of you in Chattanooga.


      • I’m sure it will be. He’s amazing and we are lucky to have him. I believe he is playing the Schermerhorn Hall in Nashville also so he must be on a “southeastern swing.”
        We try hard in Chattanooga to put a good product on stage. We have some positions that aren’t contracted and yes, some of those people work because the principal is familiar with them. Be assured, however, that Local 80 sees to it that we have all the correct procedures in place for auditioning positions.
        I hope the ASO solves their issues. The management sounds atrocious a la Minnesota. I’ve always wondered why the ASO is governed by a parent company and are not their own entity. Perhaps they can break away from Woodruff and run themselves. I hope so.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Did anyone ever TRY to get donated air miles as a sponsorship? And has anyone asked Board members to host out-of-town musicians in their homes so hotels don’t have to be used? We do this all the time. Seems a perfect way to get Board members to become more familiar with musicians……..


    • If I were a sub, just give me the hotel room where I can practice and concentrate on preparing to do my best work possible. As a sub, I don’t have much interest in smoozing with the symphony board members. That should be done by the regular tenured symphony members who have much more at stake, and who better understand the local symphony politics ..


  15. Michael, DON’T APOLOGIZE! The bassic (sic) difference between those in the section and the freelance community is that you passed the audition!!! You have earned the right to be in that section full-time by surviving that brutal, inhumane process and came out on top. Doesn’t mean there are not fine and worthy players out there. Just means you guys earned your full-time positions through blood, much sweat, and tears. Enough whining of those whose contributions consist of enriching the surrounding orchestras, etc. That is the nature of the business. You guys are there full-time because, quite simply YOU ARE THE BEST OUT THERE. Period.


  16. Great article. It is unfortunate that it was turned into a complaint forum.
    The ASO could hire three of the finest subs in this country and it would still not be as good as eight players working side-by-side day after day and year after year.
    Like fine wine, it takes time for a section, and an orchestra to reach its peak.


  17. I am not complaining. I’m only pointing out that just because we are a smaller orchestra doesn’t mean we don’t operate as fairly as we can. I didn’t appreciate the aspersions that were cast our way. I hope ASO clears up their problems. As a union member, I had thought about trying to come down and stand on the picket line with you.


  18. David Hobbs…hope you do decide to join them. I would if I weren’t on the other side of the country.


  19. Pingback: More on Atlanta Symphony leader’s resignation, petiton launches, more notes from musician lockout | Atlanta Arts and Culture Blog

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  22. You write: “Sort of like a championship baseball team trying to turn a triple play with an All-Pro shortstop that was just traded from another team. He may be a phenomenal player, but we’ve been turning that triple play together for years.”

    You must mean “trying to turn a double play” because triple plays are rare in baseball (maybe one or less per season for each major league) and thus are virtually meaningless, while turning double plays is common and one of the hallmarks of a successful defensive team. Also there are no “All-Pro” shortstops; “All-Pro” is a professional football term, as in All-
    Pro quarterback. In baseball, a topflight player is named to the All-Star team and thus is called an All-Star.


    • Thanks for the correction. I am obviously not a sports writer; I’m the guy who needs the infield fly rule explained every time. Hopefully my analogy was understood despite its errors, and hopefully sports fans will forgive me. I imagine sports fans must feel about mistakes like these the same way musicians feel when others misuse terms like “crescendo” and “atonal” and even “classical”.
      Tangentially, I once saw an unassisted triple play during a televised game. It was astounding, and not only to me; the player himself seemed baffled by the event. I forget the exact sequence; I think he caught an infield line drive, tagged the runner approaching second base, then tagged second to prevent the guy heading for third from returning safely. Or something like that. Truly marvelous.


      • Hi Michael — Glad you didn’t take offense. BTW, your account of that unassisted triple play is exactly how such a play would happen.


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