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.