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Why I don’t play my own music

I write music. I play music. I don’t play the music I write. At least, I avoid it whenever possible.

This has caused some curiosity.

It’s pretty easily explained: I’d rather listen.

And there are two reasons why:

#1. It’s easier to hear when you listen.

Playing in an orchestra bass section, you may be surprised to learn, is not the ideal vantage point from which to hear an orchestra. Sure, we can see the conductor better than the audience, and we’re optimally positioned to hear the trombones, tuba, and timpani, but we often can’t hear our colleagues on the other side of the stage, and even those sections right in front of us are difficult to hear. Their sound is projected in front of them, away from us. Unless they’re playing something really exposed, we usually can’t hear much at all from the horns, clarinets, second violins, or harp.

Think about it: we’re all directing our sound away from us, toward the conductor, who is the only one ideally positioned enough to be able to manage and balance such an unruly swarm of sounds.

As a composer, I want to be a part of the listener’s experience. For practical, composerish reasons – I want to have a balanced, objective perspective on what I’ve written. When the piece only exists on paper, it represents at best an educated guess about what it will sound like. Will the harp sound louder than the celeste? Will the marimba balance them both, or should it sound an octave higher? What about all the inscrutable harmonics that glow when the bowed gong accompanies the flutes in their lowest register? Is the viola divisi effective, or should I have included cellos in that filigree? A more experienced composer might be able to anticipate solutions to these questions. I, however, require a bit more spoon-feeding.

But I also crave the audience experience for another reason:

#2. It’s easier to hear when you listen.

Our sound is ultimately directed toward the audience. Consider the etymology of that word for a moment: your auditory experience is the ultimate reason we do what we do. In a sense, your reaction to our performance is the actual product. The music is not the sound, the music is what happens as it travels from your ears to your soul. Music can’t happen without composers, or players, or sometimes even conductors, but it also can’t happen without listeners.

Music is art; art communicates; communication requires content, transmission, and receipt. If a symphony falls in the forest, but no one’s there to hear it, did music happen? If the content a composer creates doesn’t resonate with anyone, did that composer write music?

I want to create music: forms and melodies and rhythms and harmonies that have meaning to me, but more than that, something that resonates with depth and meaning inside other people, where the music actually happens.

And I love experiencing as many aspects of the music as I can. Creating, performing, listening, devouring, remembering, cherishing, regretting. I can create anytime. I am absurdly fortunate that I can perform with a great orchestra every week. Listening, from the ideal perspective enjoyed by the audience, is something I don’t often get to experience. And when all the planets align for something I’ve created and my own ridiculously talented colleagues perform it, I’d rather sit among the listeners, higher up the food chain, as it were, where I can devour and cherish and regret and feel.

I want to paint a target on my soul and jump in front of the orchestra’s sights as it pulls the trigger. I want to know the cumulative effect of all that study and inspiration and ink and frustration and revision and pushing the baby bird out of the nest and the countless hours of practice that brought everyone on stage to this moment. I want to watch my colleagues bob their heads as the groove penetrates their perception. I want to witness the elaborate choreography of thirty violin bows as they carve the air. I want to watch the conductor dance and sway and scowl and and wring all the passion out of this spectacular instrument, the orchestra.

My work as perpetrator is finished; now I want to be the product, the vessel into which art is poured, the crucible in which ink and sweat and passion is mystically transformed into that-for-which-words-are-insufficient, my own personal epicenter, where the real music happens.

I’m obviously a little envious of people who get to experience music from the audience’s perspective. But I’m also profoundly grateful that our community supports the creation and performance of live music.  And I love being a link, or occasionally several links, in that artistic chain. By attending concerts, audiences make music possible; without them, we’re merely a clanging cymbal, a tree falling in the forest.




Another Audition Report, since That Other One seemed pretty popular

ASO Principal Bass Audition Report – June 1&2, 2015

We received over 60 resumes, and everyone who applied was invited unless they missed the deadline by an unreasonable amount of time.

Based on deposits received, we expected 36 total to show up. Of those, three were no-shows or last-minute cancellations.

We heard 29 in the prelims, and four additional players were invited to the second round, all titled tenured members of ICSOM orchestras.

The 7-member committee sat onstage, where we are able to hear the bass with a lot more presence and clarity than from the audience. The first two rounds were screened. The Music Director was present for the final round only.


No Bach or concerto. Everyone started with Mozart 39, first movement, mm 40-98.

Everyone also played Beethoven 5 third movement complete.

If players made it through those with good intonation, nice tone, good rhythm, and a clear Trio stroke, they went on to play the Haydn 31 solo, then Brahms 1 first movement letter E, then finally Heldenleben 9-12.

Most of my comments centered around:

Mozart 39: theme was too loud. Seemed like most people treated it like mf. 16th note passage rushed.

Beethoven 5 Scherzo: not enough vibrato. Lots of accented downbeats where no accent is written.

Trio: almost everyone played this too fast for 8th note clarity. We would much rather hear it slower than the Scherzo and with clear articulation.

Haydn: Many players added ornaments on the repeats, which were appreciated. Bravo to all who got creative.

Brahms 1: inconsistent note length

Heldenleben: sloppy arpeggios

Second Round:

Of the 29, three advanced to the screened second round, joined by four invited players.

Almost everyone played every excerpt. No solo Bach or concerto.

Mozart 35 first movement, mm 13-66.

Mahler 2 first movement, beginning to 2.

Beethoven 9 fourth movement K.

Brahms 1 second movement, mm 47-60.

Mozart 40 fourth movement mm 45-71.

Bartered Bride, beginning to 6 after A.

Many players were asked to play Mozart 40 again, lighter.

Final Round:

Of the seven who played the second round, three advanced to the unscreened finals, joined by a current ASO player.

Finalists were given the choice between a movement of solo Bach or a concerto movement. All opted for Bach. One played the 3rd Suite Bourrees in G, one played the 1st Suite Gigue in G, one played the 5th Suite Gigue in A minor, and one played the 3rd Suite Allemande in G.

All players played all excerpts:

Mozart 40 first movement, mm 11-136 and 191-225.

Mahler 2 first movement, beginning to 2.

Mahler 2 second movement, pickup to 6 thru 6 before 8.

Mozart 35 fourth movement, beginning thru m140.

Heldenleben, 2 before 61 to 70.

Ginastera Variaciones Concertantes movement XI solo.

Some players were asked to repeat certain excerpts, for example Mozart 40 a bit faster and more off the string, or with more attention to dynamics.

All of the finalists played basses with gated extensions, all played French bow (although our section is mixed), three played modern instruments, and one played standing (reportedly just to avoid the hassle of lugging a stool to the audition.)

After the finals, the committee and the Music Director conferenced for maybe 30 minutes. We chose a winner and offered a contract, bypassing our typical trial-week process.

ASO Section Bass Audition Report – Sept. 2015

AUDITION REPORT – Atlanta Symphony Section Bass Audition, Sept. 2015

In all, almost 100 resumes were received, and we decided to invite everyone who applied. Of those invited, about 70 responded that they expected to attend. Only 46 actually showed up to play prelims. We heard 31 on Sunday 9/13 and the remaining 15 on Monday 9/14.

Nine prelim players advanced to the second round, which was also on Monday.

Five of those advanced to finals, held Tuesday 9/15. Also in the finals were two players auto-advanced because they had made it to the finals at our recent Principal Bass auditions, as our contract stipulates.

In the prelims, which were screened, everyone played:

Brahms 1, 1st movement, letter E

Beethoven 5, Scherzo & Trio

21 of the 46 prelim players were dismissed after those three excerpts. After the Beethoven, we asked:

Mozart 39, 1st movement, theme through 16th notes

Heldenleben, 9-12

Mozart 40, last movement, m.45-71

Shostakovich 5, 1st movement, 22 through the high F

Only 10 players made it through all prelim excerpts. Of those 10, eight advanced. One player advanced before we even heard Mozart 40 or Shostakovich.

Occasionally the committee asked a candidate to repeat an excerpt with more attention to something like rhythm or intonation. This usually happened because the candidate seemed promising, and we wanted them to have another chance to earn our vote.

Making an occasional mistake didn’t cost anyone my vote. No one played a perfect prelim. Even those who advanced made mistakes, but they still came across as strong, controlled players who would probably make a positive contribution to our section, or at least as players who earned a chance to be heard again in the second round.

In my opinion, the most common reason players did not advance was poor intonation. Another very common error: not playing what’s on the page. When Brahms writes a quarter note, play a quarter note. When Beethoven writes a sforzando, play a sforzando. Also, in the Trio, many players took a tempo too fast for eighth-note clarity. I’d much rather hear the Trio at a slower tempo than the Scherzo, but with clarity. Also, in general, players who use vibrato sound a lot better than players who don’t.

Other housekeeping items: it’s okay to quickly check your tuning when you arrive on stage, but keep it brief. And playing a few notes to warm up shouldn’t be necessary.

In the second round, which was also screened, we heard:

Mozart 35, 1st movement, m.13-66

Brahms 1, 2nd movement, m.46-60

Mahler 2, 1st movement, page one

Beethoven 9, 4th movement, K – 17 before M

Heldenleben, 40-41

Bartered Bride, beginning – 6 after A

Bartok, 1st movement, m.27-56

Almost everyone played almost everything, but we were under some time pressure, so we trimmed the Heldenleben and Bartok from some auditions.

In the unscreened finals, on Tuesday 9/15, with the Music Director present, we heard:

Solo: either a movement of Bach or a concerto movement (candidate’s choice)

Mozart 40, 1st movement, m.111-138

Mahler 2, 2nd movement, 6

Heldenleben, 61-70

Mozart 35, 4th movement, beginning to m.139

Shostakovich 5, 1st movement, 22 through the high F

Finalists were often asked to repeat excerpts, with attention paid to certain characteristics.

Of the seven finalists, three played on older instruments, four on modern instruments; five played french bow; all basses had gated extensions.

Two finalists played the first movement of Koussevitzky, but were stopped before page 3. The other five finalists opted for Bach: 3rd Allemande in G, 1st Gigue in G, 3rd Bourrees in G, 5th Gigue in C minor (not in A minor).

I was very pleased with the overall level of the finalists. All are very talented players. Our decision to invite everyone who applied was also vindicated, because while some of their resumes showed years of professional experience in ICSOM orchestras, others had very little professional experience at all; some are still students.

After conferencing, the committee and Music Director decided to offer one section position to the winner, and to offer trial weeks to two other finalists to determine whether a second section position will be offered. Also, some other finalists were immediately offered opportunities to sub.

New Year’s Resolutions, part II

Resolution #2. I resolve to invest more. I resolve to devote more of my time and energy and resources to making sure the symphony is successful in the long term. I will do what I can to get more butts in seats. I resolve to invite someone new as often as possible. One method I’ve been trying: any time comp tickets are available, post an invitation on social media inviting someone who’s never been to a symphony concert before. If your social network doesn’t include strangers to the symphony, maybe it’s time to broaden your reach. Neighborhood association websites and listservs are other great ways to reach out. Enlist your students’ help. Or your kids’ PTA. Or your book club, or your yoga class, or your cycling group, or your church. We need to grow our audience any way we can, and if that means giving out a hundred tickets in the hope that one or two people might find our concerts appealing enough to buy future tickets, or subscribe, it will have been worth it.

I’ve been developing a new system in collaboration with my friends at Save Our Symphony Atlanta (SOSA) to distribute comp tickets. Each week that the box office makes comp tickets available, I ask around backstage to find out who isn’t planning on using theirs. I’m usually able to snag 4 or 5 pairs of tickets without too much trouble. My SOSA friends then decide what potential audience demographic to target, and offer them the tickets. For example, there were comps available for last Thursday night’s Cameron Carpenter appearance with the orchestra. Mr. Carpenter is a fabulous organist, so SOSA contacted a few church music directors and organists, and identified ten people to invite, including music directors and students. I met with most of them after the concert, and they were very grateful for the opportunity to hear a wonderful concert. In fact, of those ten comps distributed, four tickets were sold for upcoming performances. It’s probable that none of those new tickets would have been sold if the audience members had not been invited as our guests.

So, I resolve to invest. I resolve to invest any comp tickets I’m offered, and any of my colleagues’ comp tickets with which they’re willing to part, to the cause of getting butts in the seats. We all prefer playing to a full house, and we all love sharing our music with new audiences. Let’s invest our comp tickets toward this cause, and I guarantee we’ll see a return on our investment.

New Year’s Resolutions, part I

In the spirit of the new year, I’ve made a few resolutions.

1. I resolve to exercise. I resolve to involve myself more physically in every performance. I’m not going to sit there like a statue, all stern seriousness. I will ask myself: when I’m on stage, do I look like I want to be there? Do I look like I’m enjoying the music I’m playing, or do my expression, posture, and demeanor suggest that I can’t wait to get out of there? How can I possibly be appealing to an audience when I look like I don’t even enjoy playing for them? I know, it’s a serious job, I play serious music, it’s not frivolous, but think about the audience’s experience. Most of them are not musicians, not on the professional level, anyway, and most of them imagine that what an orchestra does is special, that we must really love music and enjoy playing it. This feeling may seem remote for many of us, since playing music has been our profession for so long, we forget why we got involved in music in the first place. But I resolve to recapture that joy and wonder and make it visible. I’m going to allow the music to move through me like I actually enjoy it, because I do! I’m going to behave as though the music and I are unified in rhythm and motion, in muscularity and momentum. I’m going to be carried along on the inertia of the composer’s intention.

Another simple exercise: I’m going to smile more. I’m going to smile when I see audience members walk down the aisle to the seats they paid for, I’m going to catch someone’s eye between movements and share that moment of anticipation: I know what’s coming next, and I can’t wait to share it with you! I’m going to beam with pride when the performance ends, knowing that I just brought joy or solace or beauty into someone’s life. I’m going to embrace their applause, I’m going to show gratitude for their support. I’m going to make it plain by my expression that I’m glad they came, and that I’m eager for the next time I get to share great music with them.

And I resolve to walk more, to the lobby specifically, to greet the audience warmly. Answer questions. Thank them for their attendance and their support. Ask them why they came, what they enjoyed most about the performance, suggest some upcoming concerts they might like, tell them something interesting or funny about preparing for this concert. Some people find the details of what we do mysterious, even fascinating. Connecting them with something personal can help foster their commitment to attending.

One evening I was in the lobby during intermission, chatting with anyone who seemed interested in meeting a white-tie-and-tailcoat-clad person, and I was asked what it was like working with that week’s guest conductor. I shared an anecdote about how the conductor’s luggage was lost, and missing his baton, had to conduct freehand. Seemed like an inconsequential tidbit, but the audience member found it delightful; they had never thought about traveling with a baton, and how that simple tool affects their job, and our collaboration, and what its absence might mean. I hope I’ve told more interesting stories than that one, but that concertgoer now had a new connection to me, my orchestra, my job; they now shared a secret that gave them an insider’s perspective on the mystery of orchestra playing, and it invested them in the process.

So that’s my new year’s exercise regimen. I know, it doesn’t offer much promise of weight loss, but it’s probably decent cardio, and I could definitely stand to smile more.

Since you asked, Ms. Hepner…

Woodruff Arts Center President and CEO Virginia Hepner says, “We continue to ask the musicians for constructive ideas to help us address these challenges, and we are frustrated that they have turned a deaf ear to the situation.”

Okay, Ms. Hepner, let me apologize for causing you any frustration. Perhaps being locked out of my job, denied my salary and health care coverage, and treated like a pawn in some Kafka-esque chess game have caused the deafness you bemoan. Deaf though I may be, I am not mute. I offer to you the following Constructive Ideas, in the interest of helping you address these challenges:

Constructive Idea #1: END THE LOCKOUT. This may seem counter-intuitive to you; after all, the ASO’s own spokesperson claimed that the orchestra saves $25,000 to $30,000 every day the lockout continues. By my calculations, you’ve already saved between $1.125 and $1.35 million in musician compensation since the lockout began 45 days ago. Is this your much-touted “contemporary operating model”? An un-orchestra? An anti-philharmonic? A group that is so efficient, so well-run, that it doesn’t even need to function? With savings like that, maybe donors will start earning dividends.

How much would the WAC save if the five highest-paid non-artistic employees of the WAC weren’t paid during the lockout either? Using the most recent 990 available (from 2012), the five highest paid non-artistic WAC employees (President, CEO, Executive VP/CFO, ASO President, and VP for Business Development) earned a combined $1,511,029. If they were forced to go without their salaries (and bonuses) like the entire orchestra (by the way, can I have a bonus for not doing my job? That seems to be the WAC’s policy) – the WAC would save an additional $4,139 a day. Shouldn’t these executives, who care as deeply about the future of the ASO as we musicians (see my previous post, “The Quotable WAC”), be willing to share in the sacrifice? Maybe you’d consider donating your bonuses to the Constructive Ideas for Musicians with Deaf Ears Fund. Then we could afford to benefit the orchestra by staying locked out longer. And we have a proven track record of benefiting the orchestra: remember the $5.2 million in concessions we made in 2012? I’d gladly do my part by accepting your bonus. Make your check payable to “ATL Symphony Musicians Foundation.”

But consider the costs of continuing the lockout. How many donors are reconsidering where they direct their generosity? Does cutting off salary and benefits of your valued employees encourage philanthropy? Does demonstrating to the arts community that you’re more interested in slashing your product and reducing your orchestra to a sweat shop for interns (see Press Statement 10-3-14)- does that sound like the kind of arts organization people would rally behind? Should benefactors trust that your organization will be well-run after this round of cuts, even though the cuts in 2012 didn’t apparently help anything?

Constructive Idea#2: END THE LOCKOUT. Do you really think that NOT presenting the spectacular performances that our community has come to expect will endear the concert-going public to your contemporary operating model? Has the ticket-buying public been clamoring for a smaller, less experienced orchestra? Has the staff begged you, “Please can we work with unpaid interns? These professionals are so darn…professional!” Of what value is an empty concert hall?

Or maybe your strategy is to pass the savings on to our audience. Imagine their glee when they realize how much money they’d save by not attending the concerts you cancelled! In fact, the WAC is saving so much money, you could probably afford to pay people not to come to the non-concerts by the world-class un-orchestra. Perhaps you could offer them a stipend to sit at home and read the minutes from the latest Woodruff Arts Center Governing Board meeting. And we now have new leverage to lobby for public funding: Atlanta is willing to pay hundreds of millions for a new football stadium that will sit idle most of the year. Why wouldn’t they also pay for a new concert hall to remain empty?

Actually, though, on that same 2012 990, you list among our Program Service Accomplishments, “The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra consistently affirms its position as one of America’s leading orchestras by performing great music, presenting great artists, educating, and engaging the community…The orchestra performs more than 200 concerts each year for a combined audience of more than half a million in a full schedule of performances.” So, perhaps you’d have more credibility if you allowed the orchestra to get back to its core mission.

Constructive Idea #3: END THE LOCKOUT. Seriously, you look like a bunch of petulant bullies, shaking down band geeks for their lunch money. We all knew people like that in middle school, and we expected them to either grow out of it, or end up in prison. We didn’t expect them to pursue leadership positions in prestigious arts non-profits. Who treats employees like that? Do you think the public perceives this to be a fair negotiation, when one side can unilaterally deny any salary or benefits to the other, with no reciprocal consequences? Do you think that Doug Hertz’s public speculation about our collective sanity makes WAC leadership sound well-reasoned, judicious, and wise?

And remember, we’re not just the employees, we’re the product, the very reason the Arts Center exists. We’re the reason people buy tickets and Grammy-winning recordings, we’re what they intend to support when they donate. We are who they applaud for. Would you like applause? Would you like the public and the press to express their appreciation for a job well done? It’s a really great feeling – I should know, I get that feeling after each of the concerts the ATL Symphony Musicians have produced and performed over the past few weeks. Here’s what you can do to earn that feeling: END THE LOCKOUT. Start treating us like valued partners in a vital cultural mission, instead of annoying inconsequential vermin. Stop the starvation tactics and save this orchestra, or step aside and let someone who wants to save it step up.

The Why of Crazy

A journalist from out of town attended our first Mozart Requiem rehearsal on Monday night. He was interested in the mechanics of the WAC lockout of the Atlanta Symphony, and found a moment to ask about the concert planning activities I’ve been involved in. He asked about scheduling, staffing, programming. I’ve been neck deep in concert planning, so I didn’t have much trouble giving him details, anecdotes, horror stories. But then he asked me a question that stumped me, left me without cogent response.

“Why do you do this?”

Up till that question, I had been quick and thorough in my responses, verbose-ish, at times perhaps approaching the outskirts of eloquence. But this question derailed me.

What does that mean, why do I do this? I’ve been playing music, promoting music, composing music, teaching music for more than four-fifths of my life, and while I often consider how I do it, and fill my calendar with when I do it, and lately a lot of thought has gone into the question of where I do it (since I’m locked out of my place of employment), I’m not sure how much thought I’ve ever devoted to answering why.


It’s an important question, necessary even, if I’m even a bit interested in self-knowledge. Though I confess, I’ve often avoided self-knowledge, in the interest of blissful ignorance.

So, more ignorant than blissful, I sat with the journalist who’d just posed the question that flummoxed me, and I flummoxed ponderously for a bit, wheels turning. Why?

“If you ask someone why they breathe, they can’t even answer you without breathing. Also, you had to breathe to ask the question in the first place.”

Did that make any sense at all? Did I just rip off some Zen koan? Was there somewhere nearby a single hand clapping for my display of wisdom? No, I think I probably sounded like a pretentious ass.

But in a way, it explains the why. Music is necessary to me; it’s not what I choose to do, it’s not what I love to do, it’s what I must do. I’m not sure I even have a choice. Most of my colleagues, if they could pinpoint the moment when they chose to devote their lives to music, would admit that music somehow made the choice for them, that they couldn’t imagine being any other way. I imagine every kind of artist feels this way, and I’d wager there are many people in other professions who would agree, educators, social workers, public servants.

So why are some of us naturally compelled to pursue something so esoteric? After all, most of these pursuits aren’t particularly profitable. No one goes into teaching to get rich; social work wouldn’t be possible without public support and grant money; arts organizations are so notoriously unprofitable that we’ve created special tax status to ensure their survival.

Why do you do this? If I’m right, if the why can only be answered existentially, then the more germane question is: Why must this be done?

Maybe god or the universe or whatever is trying to preserve and perpetuate our species planted these seeds of socially beneficial imperative in our DNA. Maybe our evolution, maybe our very survival depends on crazy people willing, no, needing to create, to express, to connect people trapped in the present with the most beautiful gifts from civilization’s past and the promise of a future filled with even more beauty, truth, connection, love.

A community needs art, because art connects us to one another across time and border and belief in ways that greed and partisanship and conflict cannot. And if it loses those connections, a culture that should thrive will instead wither. And the greatest art has always needed the support of those who understand that it has value beyond its profitability.

Atlanta has a symphony orchestra that has, with the generous (and necessary) support of generations of music lovers, built a legacy of exhilarating performances and benchmark recordings of some of our civilization’s greatest artistic achievements. The ASO has served for decades as an ambassador of the best of our culture. That’s why we do this, because we must. The next question we must answer: Why have we entrusted the nurture of this legacy to those who would tear it down?

A Day in the Life, Part II

Began a sunny October day in a charming, hospitable southern city not far from my Atlanta home. I’m in town subbing with their orchestra, actually subbing for a sub who got called to play with another charming, hospitable southern city, so technically I’m a sub once-removed, or a sub-in-law, or a step-sub, or something like that. Yes, I’m a freelancer this week, one of those itinerant members of the so-called “Freeway Philharmonic” who aren’t residentially woven into the fabric of the orchestra, but rather must weave their roles anew with each visit; I’m trying to “sit in and fit in” and offer my sonic contributions without making any waves. More on this process later…

First things first, though: breakfast. Can’t skip it, love when hotels offer it, never pass it up. Sometimes, if the buffet is good and included, I’ll have an early breakfast as soon as the buffet opens, and come back for an early brunch before they close up shop. This particular experience did not merit a second visit. Eggs apparently extruded from some sadist’s Inedible Round-ish Food-esque Punishment Machine. Pancakes assembled by robots in an ingenious, yet ultimately unsuccessful, conveyor-belt device, and plopped unceremoniously upon my waiting paper plate. Shared this advice with a lovely British family seen waiting for their pancakes a few minutes later: “Y’all might wanna butter the plate first, if you want any hope of peeling the pancake off it.” They expressed gratitude, if warily, now convinced of southern hospitality and eccentricity in equal measure.

Now, several hours devoted to concert planning before my 2 pm rehearsal. The program on the front burner is next week’s Mozart Requiem, with members of our beloved ASO Chorus, their identities now cleverly concealed under the moniker “Atlanta Mozart Choir.” But problems have arisen – seems the venue’s choral risers are too small to accommodate all the singers volunteering to perform with the ATL Symphony Musicians. Venue representatives are worried about stage capacity, fire codes, egress routes, shell placement, all things I figure I’d better learn about really soon, lest the whole project get nuked.

What to do? Uninvite singers? But these are talented, generous, and committed volunteers, who believe in the power of our shared art to effect change in this loathsome lockout. Include everyone already signed up? But that might risk the venue pulling the plug on the event. Hours on the phone with conductors, choral administrators, concert planning partners, relentlessly pacing the hotel room, trying to ameliorate a tense situation. Only possible with the invaluable help of wise, devoted, and ultimately disappointed colleagues willing to make difficult decisions. But we shall prevail, and we shall sing and play Mozart, and art shall be victorious. Bruised, but victorious.

Onward, to the gig! So, I’m sub-subbing with another city’s orchestra. Very talented and friendly people; some are locals, some travel hundreds of miles to play here. Most of them have worked together quite frequently, I gather, so I sit in the back of the bass section and try to lay low. (Bad bass pun.) Bass players are generally known to be easygoing and amicable, so my new section-mates allow me to slip effortlessly into the bass-centric conversations before rehearsal begins. Good humor abounds: “Try this new rosin. It’s made of candy. You can lick your bow when you’re done playing.” And, “Oh wow, you string your bass balls-out? Awesome.” (That’s not as bawdy as it might sound to non-bassists.)

But “sitting in and fitting in” isn’t just about camaraderie; it’s also about intense awareness of what’s going on all around you. Where are the trombones breathing? How much bow is the concertmaster using on the quarter note accents? Unfamiliar conductor: does she cue with her eyes, or her right hand, or her left hand, or her imagination?

I make a rookie mistake: carrying the traditions of my own orchestra to the gig, instead of being a proverbial blank slate. In one spot, I make a subtle portamento through a descending melodic tritone; that’s how we do it in Atlanta. Alas, that’s not how they do it here, which I discover after demonstrating my ignorance. My gaffe is greeted with good-natured glances. I quickly scribe the injunction against schmalzandos in my part, letting my pencil just-barely-audibly fall to rest on the stand as a gesture of respect: I’ve learned my lesson. Next time through the passage, however, the entire section slides the shift in jest, letting me know that they’re paying attention too.

All this, leading up to breaktime, when I trade roles from humble bass section sub to bold, articulate Arts Advocate! It just so happens that Very Famous Cellist is soloing with This Orchestra, and, knowing this, colleagues from Back Home have encouraged me to solicit Very Famous Cellist’s support in our efforts to end the lockout. So, as soon as break is called, I stride right up to Very Famous Cellist, announcing, “The Atlanta Symphony sends its greetings!”

Very Famous Cellist’s brow furrows, and he exudes empathy and concern, and asks, “What the f*** is going on down there?” Suddenly nervous, I stammer a response about WAC Board leadership being hostile and trying to destroy a great artistic legacy, and Very Famous Cellist, widely respected as one of the most generous musicians alive, asks what he can do to help.

Score! Very Famous Cellist wants to help! I figure I should start with a modest plea: “Would you consider making a statement urging management to end the lockout? I could record a video on my phone. Your support would mean so much to us in Atlanta.”

Very Famous Cellist seems willing, but insists, “I don’t want to take sides.” Offers instead to make a less partisan statement about great art in general, about how music should not be held hostage by labor disputes.

As I nod in agreement, Personal Assistant of Very Famous Cellist intervenes, pointedly demanding more detail about who I am and what I want with her Very Famous Cellist. No offense, Personal Assistant is doing a damn fine job of protecting him from people like me, trying to take advantage of Very Famous Cellist’s generous nature. I introduce myself, and Personal Assistant says, “We’re aware of the situation in Atlanta, and we’re very concerned,” but her obvious primary concern is, “How quickly can I get rid of this person harassing my boss?”

As it turns out, Personal Assistant need not have worried, because Very Famous Cellist’s generous nature is presently endearing him to the orchestra. “Here, try my cello!” repeated to anyone nearby, and an adoring crowd gathers, preventing any further harassment.

Later, on stage waiting for the concert to begin, I warm up on the Bach I once played for Very Famous Cellist, years ago, when he generously (of course) consented to hear me and offer advice. As I play, still reminding myself of the “greater motivic awareness” he counseled, who but the Very Famous Cellist himself should appear in the stage left wings! Making goofy faces at the bass section! He’s making small talk with the guy beside me; is he avoiding eye contact with me, like a jury about to announce a defendant’s guilt, because he’s changed his mind about helping us? No, I’m reading way too much into this. I do not, however, resume warming up my Bach; I’ve been bounced off my game, and now I need to focus on the music on the stand in front of me. Ah, yes, the arpeggio in the fourth movement: a knuckle-cruncher. I do about thirty reps.

Reminding myself during intermission what was to be gained by venturing nothing, I pin a note to Very Famous Cellist’s dressing room door, reiterating my request. I’m rewarded later with a proffered business card: the Personal Assistant’s email address. In my mind, I’m already writing tomorrow morning’s email solicitation for help, trying to maintain a delicate balance between forlorn humility and self-assured righteousness. I allow myself optimism, of a sort; in the words of Virginia Hepner, CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, “I’m pretty optimistic. I have to be; I work in the arts.” True that, Virginia, true that.

Scorecard for the trip:
Expenses: gas; 1 night moderately cheap hotel; 2 meals at cheap restaurants (<$10/meal); 3 bottles of 5-hour energy drink so I don’t fall asleep at the wheel (or the bass); the hassle of rescheduling lessons because of an unexpected road trip; and putting 2 dogs in daycare for a day because my wife has to work late and we don’t want the chair chewed again (see previous blog post, “A Day in the Life of a Locked-Out Orchestra Musician“).
Income: enough to cover expenses.
Intangibles: The possibility of Very Famous Cellist offering a statement of support; the opportunity to give a demo CD to a talented young conductor (I am, after all, a composer); making new friends, connections, colleagues; and nurturing my soul with beautiful music, and sharing that joy with an appreciative audience.

Hope they call again. Working feels good.

The Quotable WAC


A few gems from the Woodruff Arts Center Leadership:

“We must make sure the management structure is as efficient as it needs to be without compromising the artistic direction at each of the divisions…The Woodruff Arts Center board has no business telling Robert Spano about the musical direction of the symphony.” – Larry Gellerstedt, Chair, Woodruff Arts Center Board of Trustees, in an interview with Maria Saporta of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, June 2012

Mr. Spano said he was troubled by a provision in the latest management proposal that would give it discretion over whether to fill positions, which could further shrink the ensemble. – New York Times, Sept. 2014

…It was important for Hepner and her board to not make “the symphony a scapegoat for everything that’s wrong” at the [Woodruff Arts] Center. “I think it’s easy for everything to get blamed on the symphony,” she said. “But there are other issues.”  – Penny McPhee, President of the Arthur Blank Family Foundation, in an interview with Maria Saporta of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, June 2012

Easy to blame everything on the Symphony. Hmmm…

“We all have a real desire to grow the collective audience in Atlanta and the region and the state. There’s more to do,” Hepner said. “But I can tell you, it will be a lot more fun to grow the organization.” – Virginia Hepner, President and CEO, Woodruff Arts Center, in an interview with Maria Saporta of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, June 2012

(Apparently, “growing the organization” means rewarding management failure with large bonuses.)

“We’ll never sacrifice the quality of the art…To me, it’s all about artistic excellence and access…My personal thrill would be that everybody in the community got to see what we do.” Virginia Hepner, in an interview with WABE Radio, Aug. 2012

“The lockout is essentially the board and management punishing the orchestra… It’s a one-sided attempt to force the orchestra to its collective knees. It also paints the orchestra as this intransigent group of musicians. But in fact they have shown extraordinary willingness to come to a common agreement, as what happened two years ago proves. The fact that it should have come to a lockout again is simply devastating.” – ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, in an interview with the Guardian UK, Sept. 2014

Atlanta Magazine: You also have to keep the artists happy, an issue that got attention from the ASO musicians strike. [Note: The 2012 event the interviewer refers to WAS NOT A STRIKE. It was a unilateral, management-imposed LOCKOUT. Apparently, Ms. Hepner did nothing to correct or clarify the important distinction for the interviewer or the readers.] 
Virginia Hepner: “The symphony is very well-run. We want it to be a world-class orchestra…that is extremely expensive… the symphony was $20 million in debt. We couldn’t find any more ways to go without asking the musicians to participate. And I really appreciate the fact that they did. It was essential to ensuring that we have a symphony in the future.”
“I’m a huge Atlanta fan, and I believe we can do anything we set our minds to. I’m pretty optimistic. I have to be; I work in the arts.” – Atlanta Magazine interview with Virginia Hepner, Dec. 2012

“Very well-run.” Really? REALLY? 

“I tell my colleagues here, the most important thing for me to do is bring resources so that they can fulfill their artistic vision.”  – Virginia Hepner, in an interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle, March 2013

(I don’t remember ever hearing this from her, but, then again, we really aren’t “colleagues” since you locked us out…)

“If you are comfortable with the people you hire, you have to let them do their job.”  – Doug Hertz, Chairman of WAC Board of Governors, in a interview with Barbara Kaufman of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, May 2013

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I would like very much to do my job now.

“I learned a long time ago that everybody’s replaceable.”
“I’ve never seen a for-profit business get more out of an investment than artists do—they’re so creative in terms of how they produce what they do with minimal investment.” – Virginia Hepner, in an interview with GA Center for Nonprofits, Winter 2013

In Ms. Hepner’s defense, when she mentioned being “replaceable” she was apparently referring to some hypothetical future situation in which she herself might be replaced.  Can we pencil in a date for that one?
As for “minimal investment,” how minimally should anyone invest in the ASO? Way to encourage philanthropy!

“I think that the measure of both an individual and somebody representing a company is, in fact, the relationships that we have. Because you’re not going to have long-term relationships unless you’ve built up a trust. And that’s a trust with your customers, a trust with your suppliers, and frankly, a trust with your associates.” – Doug Hertz, Chairman of the WAC Board of Governors, in a promotional video for United Distributors, March 2014

So, is the reason you’ve locked us out because you don’t trust us? Or should we not trust you, since you apparently aren’t interested in a long-term relationship?

Keep those gems coming, WAC! We’re listening!

The Lockout Cocktail, or, Fiddling While Romanstein Squirms

lockout cocktail

So, my ATL Symphony Musician colleagues had a little concert last Monday night. Not a lavish affair, nobody wore tuxes, there was no valet to park the cars. In fact, it was crowded (standing room only), loud (it was in a rock music venue, after all), drinks were spilled, voices were raised. Not your typical classical music concert – more of a party, really.

A party with some of the most glorious and heartbreaking and joyful music we’ve ever played.

What was the occasion? Why such revelry? Didn’t this concert take place mere hours after ASO and Woodruff Arts Center management announced the cancellation of all services through November 8th? Why weren’t the musicians desperately racing to management, hats in hands, begging them to take us back under their sheltering wings? Surely, the daunting prospect of being without a paycheck or benefits for months on end should have made us cower in fear for our very survival!

Instead, we made music, we laughed, we cheered, we made new friends, we gathered around that which we hold most dear: music.

Our management has very thoughtfully made available to the public a chart titled “What’s On The Table.” Nevermind that it’s extremely biased; nevermind that it’s misleading. What strikes me most about it is what it doesn’t say: it neglects to mention the one thing that the musicians bring to the table, the thing about which management has demonstrated stunning ignorance, the very reason for the symphony’s existence: music.

Great music, in fact. The best music ever created, heard, or imagined. And we can provide it. That’s what we bring to the table. We play great music, and we play it really well. We bat 1.000, we knock it out of the park. WAC/ASO leadership, what do you do well? Lead your organization to greater heights? Win Grammy awards? Fundraise? Dissemble? Shift funds? Order your underlings to delete Facebook posts? Spend bonuses? Work on your tan?

We had a concert last Monday night because we recognize the need in our community for great music. Judging by public interest in the concerts we’re organizing, we’re not the only ones who sense that need.

We’re going to keep presenting concerts, serving our audience, our community, sharing with them our love for great music. We are the new stewards of art in Atlanta, and Atlanta will show you that they do value world-class symphonic music.

So go ahead, “leaders,” try and implement your “contemporary model” of running an orchestra. Try and tell our audience that they’re not sophisticated enough to tell the difference between excellence and whatever it is you’d settle for. Try and sell Atlanta a slick, shallow package of adequate. I, for one, have more faith in my community, and I know you won’t succeed. I know that the Atlanta arts community won’t let you succeed. And after you’re gone, the need for great music will survive, and we’ll be here to provide it.

And years from now, we’ll sit around post-concert, and, feeling nostalgic, sip our Lockout Cocktails, trying to remember the names of the people who tried to grind us to destruction, those that failed. We’ll toast the new era of visionary leadership that this despicable lockout inspired to action, we’ll toast our artistic success, our 40th Grammy, our new concert hall. We’ll toast the music we make together, for our city.