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.

Titanic460

We’ll leave the light on for you…

Atlanta’s a great city. Ninth-largest metropolitan area in the US. We hosted the Olympics, won a world series, built a kick-ass aquarium. We’re home to some big industry leaders:  Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta, CNN. We’ve been in the news a lot lately because we have the resources and the balls to treat ebola patients flown in from Africa.

We have chefs that win Food Network competitions, we’re rich in Civil War history, we have greater tree coverage than any other major city (36%, compared to the national average 27%). We have more streets with “Peachtree” in their name than we can handle.

I’m a bit biased; I’ve made Atlanta my home since 1994, which according to some, makes me a native. Or at least a local. I love Atlanta. Safe to say that the overwhelming majority of my ATL Symphony colleagues feel similarly.

I don’t mind visiting other cities, of course. But there’s nowhere I’d rather make my home than here. Not Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati, D.C., Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Seattle, Asheville, Memphis, Boston, even New York.

These cities have their charms, and there’s something else they have: our musicians. See, since this reprehensible lockout perpetrated by the Woodruff Arts Center, parent organization of the Atlanta Symphony, the fine orchestras of these (and other) cities have been calling my colleagues to come and play, for a week, or a month, or a season. And we’re grateful for their offers, since here in Atlanta, we’re not being paid, we’re not getting the opportunities to bring great music to our community, we’re apparently not wanted by the very organization charged with nurturing and sustaining us. They won’t even let us in the building.

I know these orchestras (and others) have been calling, because as chair of the Concert Planning Sub-Committee, I’ve been trying to sign my colleagues up to play benefit concerts. And all of them tell me they’re eager to play – if they’re in town. But when your employer refuses to let you work, you do what you must to make ends meet. I don’t begrudge my colleagues a bit. When your skills are as specialized as ours, it’s not like you can just call a corporate headhunter and find something local.

So, what is it about these other cities that give them the resources to support a major symphony orchestra, while Atlanta allegedly cannot? Are they wealthier, more philanthropic? No, according to a 2012 Atlantic Cities Magazine study, Atlanta ranked 10th on their list of the 30 wealthiest U.S. cities. Atlanta ranks sixth in the nation in GDP. According to Charity Navigator, we rank 15th in total contributions to charity. We are the 17th largest economy in the world. 

And our leadership claims that this city can’t support a major symphony orchestra?

Or is it that the Woodruff Arts Center doesn’t want to support a major symphony orchestra, an orchestra that has won 27 Grammy Awards, has made some of the most definitive recordings of some of the greatest works of musical art ever composed, an orchestra that brings culture and beauty and solace and exhilaration to thousands each year? Is it that coping sensibly with the ASO’s debt isn’t the best use of the WAC’s $103,000,000 of unrestricted net assets?

Is the WAC really so willing to let our treasured artistic talent migrate to other cities? Are they satisfied with the cultural contributions of Real Housewives and Honey Boo Boo? Those pillars of culture turn a profit, at least.

Is that why the WAC is so hostile to the symphony? Because great art isn’t worth supporting? Because we aspire to mediocrity? Because our city strives to be provincial, rather than “world-class”? After all, to borrow a phrase from WAC CEO Virginia Hepner, it’s up to anyone to decide what’s world-class, and what a great city should be.

Well, without a sea-change in leadership, Atlanta will keep losing its most talented musicians to orchestras with leadership that aspires to greatness. They’ll leave slowly at first, a week here, a week there, while the WAC steers the Titanic straight for the iceberg, because it’s much easier to pilot a lifeboat than an oceanliner. Before long, our musicians will find greener pastures, and the cities that hire them will be richer for it, and my city, my home, will be impoverished by their loss.  And the WAC will have gotten their wish: an orchestra they don’t have to raise a dime for, or negotiate against, or ever worry about again.

empty stage

A Day in the Life of a Locked-Out Orchestra Musician

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

4:05 am  Woke up, thought about concert publicity, realized my new blog might be an ideal outlet to provide detailed concert info

4:06 am  Realized I know maybe two or three things about blogging, which is about ten things too few

4:10 am  Started figuring out how to format a blog site

4:11 am – 8:25 am  Period of intermittent swearing, rejoicing, checking emails, checking FB, frequently interrupted by dogs barking.

7:30 am  Wife comes downstairs, greets me, unsurprised that I’ve been up for hours.

8:25 am  Breakfast, and wondering whether I should go with my colleagues to the Fulton County Commission meeting to raise awareness of the lockout (probably), then admitting guiltily that I won’t (I wouldn’t be much help, since I’d likely fall asleep on my feet), then assuaging my conscience with tentative plans to join the picket line lunchtime shift.

9 am-10:50 am  More emails, FB, quick shower, make sure my ATL Symphony Musician t-shirt doesn’t stink. Wait for concert-planning colleague to call about meeting at Terminal West (concert venue) to discuss web-streaming details. She’s stuck at Fulton County Commission meeting, stars are misaligned, meeting takes place without me.

11:30 am  Arrive at Woodruff Arts Center to picket. Found free parking!

11:34 am-1 pm  Carried sign saying “ASO NEEDS NEW LEADERSHIP” up and down Peachtree Street with about 20 colleagues and other community supporters. Tried vainly to engage in conversation with fellow picketers above the constant noise of passing motorists honking in support.

1:05 pm  Lunchtime shift ends. I make a startling and wonderful discovery: SOMEONE BROUGHT DONUTS! My glee grows exponentially when I make a second startling and wonderful discovery: THERE ARE TWO DONUTS LEFT, AND ONE OF THEM IS A BOSTON CREME DONUT!!!

1:06 pm  I do a Boston Creme Donut dance.

1:10 pm  Sit in my car, cursing my smartphone for crashing, wondering how much it will cost to fix, or if it’s still under warranty, and wondering how I’m going to get directions to my 2:00 meeting  to check out another potential concert venue, bemoaning my dependence on technology.

1:13 pm  Phone decides to start working, Drive to meeting. Make appointment for afternoon meeting with a conductor to discuss program & scheduling.

1:45 pm – 2 pm  Phone call with concert planning colleague who I missed earlier in the day, to discuss web-streaming, seating capacity, the possibility of issuing Standing Room Only tickets after the 200 seats are sold, and the bar staff’s creation of signature cocktails for the event (why am I so enamored of that idea?).

2 pm – 2:45 pm  Meeting with a church music director to assess feasibility of his church as a concert venue

2:45 pm – 3:30 pm  Drive to next meeting, phone call with local music journalist about concert details

3:30 pm – 4 pm  Meeting with conductor of different concert about program & scheduling, and whether he can persuade an A-List soloist friend of his to perform with the ATL Symphony Musicians

4pm – 4:30 pm  Drive home to let the dogs out. Texting barrage from negotiating committee member about recruiting personnel for upcoming concerts.

4:30 pm – 6:30 pm  Dinner, computer work, formatting parts for a piece I wrote for a local community orchestra

6:30 pm – 8 pm  Spent time with wifey, made plans to go out tomorrow night to celebrate our anniversary: traditionally, at a quaint Italian restaurant, but this year, we’d better not spend the money, so just out for a glass of wine this year. Also discussed: if this contract ever settles, let’s get that dog-chewed chair re-upholstered. Also discussed: what do you call someone who re-upholsters things? A re-upholsterer? Isn’t there a better word for that?

yellow chair

I love this chair.

8 pm – 9 pm  Email rehearsal reminders to orchestra, check emails and FB. Make tomorrow’s to-do list. Try to watch The Killing on Netflix but the damn router signal is too slow.

9:05 pm  Fell asleep waiting for something called “Buffering.”

Release the Hounds!

tw reh

Yesterday, about 25 of my ATL Symphony Musician colleagues and I began rehearsing for a chamber orchestra concert. Event details:

http://www.terminalwestatl.com/event/679669-atl-symphony-musicians-atlanta/

Everyone is volunteering their time and talent, and as much as I value their time, I can’t begin to quantify their talent. Beyond priceless.

The venue, Terminal West, is more accustomed to hosting acts like OK Go and Snarky Puppy (worth checking out!), so classical is a bit outside their comfort zone, but they’re being very generous and flexible with us, and we’re  grateful for their hospitality.

The program, conducted by dear friend Mary Hoffman, will include the Bach Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin, featuring two of the ATL Symphony Musicians’ staggeringly talented rock stars, Elizabeth Koch Tiscione and David Coucheron. I defy anyone to show me a duo as gifted (or as easy on the eyes) as these two young superstars. (My parenthetical claims can be substantiated by a quick Google image search.)

Also included on the program are Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, which sounds Celtic enough that we’re adding an array of Celtic-ish percussion instruments to the mix, led by our own Tom Sherwood, who plays the hell out of the bodhran.  Wondering what that is, and what it sounds like when it’s had the hell played out of it? Come find out.

Also, some new arrangements: Rachmaninoff’s thunderous C# minor Prelude, in a new orchestration for strings. And a bit of an experiment: ever wonder what baroque music would sound like filtered through Afro-Caribbean rhythms? Or remixed as “acoustic dubstep”? You’ll hear it in Albinoni 2.0.

Filling out the main program, we’ll play Handel’s Watermusic and Puccini’s devastatingly gorgeous Chrysanthemums.

The chamber orchestra portion of the program begins at 8:30, but get to Terminal West in time to hear some ATL Symphony Musicians in even more intimate groups, including selections from brass quintet and string quartet, and a haunting English Horn solo by Emily Brebach.

Sorry, youngsters, the venue is 18 and older. Rejoice, grown folks, we’re having the bar staff create signature cocktails for the occasion featuring Hangar One Vodka! Don’t forget to buy a round for the band.

It feels SO good to be on stage making music with my friends and colleagues! Our city deserves great art! Come support it!

Get tickets online now at the Terminal West event link above. If you wait to get them at the door, you might find them already sold out…

On the Making of Apples

I’m working on designing a “contemporary operating model” for, I dunno, maybe apples or something. I’m not an expert on apples or anything. Not really sure I even like apples. But it’s obvious to me that apples can be made much more cheaply if we cut a few corners. I propose we leave out the seeds. I know, I know, seeds provide a vital role in the perpetuation of apples, but honestly, do we really need apples next year, or a decade from now? And think of the savings!
Also the stems. Let’s stop throwing money at keeping apples connected to apple trees. The tree community will be much more generous once we balance our need for apples with fiscal responsibility.
Also, I’m working on a plan to reduce, and hopefully remove, the expensive apple flavor from apples. I honestly can’t taste any difference between the ones from the farmers’ market and the crabapples in my backyard. So my plan is, stop giving the apples any plant food or water or whatever it is you’re supposed to give apples to keep them healthy and growing. Then people will be amazed at how cheaply I can make the apples, and probably no one will notice the changes in the size or taste of the apples.
I’m going to call my new venture “World-Class-ish Apple-ish Cheap Things.” I’m looking for investors, serious inquiries only.