Random musings on orchestral career longevity by a partially-recovered violist

[Note: written yesterday] I’ve got a long break between rehearsals today. The Oregon Symphony is doing a semi-staged version of Shakespeare’s Tempest accompanied by Sibelius incidental music for same. So, long break for various tech things to happen before our afternoon dress rehearsal. If you’re a fan of all things Shakespeare, it’s definitely worth a look this weekend. Find out about tickets and the like here.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about orchestral careers and their longevity. I was struck by a recent New York Times article on the Chicago Symphony’s legendary brass section that Principal trombonist Jay Friedman has been in his position since 1965. 1965. That’s three years before I was born! I’m in awe of his endurance and in his artistic integrity that has led him to be a formidable contributor to the famous “Chicago sound” for the past 54 years, give or take. Amazing.

Then I think about other musicians, both in that orchestra and others around the country, where seemingly everyone in the broader musical world was muttering to themselves “why hasn’t that person retired, yet?”

It’s a tough situation, I can only imagine. But imagining it became easier for me since my cycling accident. I’m well on my way to a full recovery (knock on wood), but there were some dark moments in the middle of the night where I thought that I might never get there, and what would I do then?

When I began my tenure with the OSO, back in 1995, then Music Director James DePreist was famous for allowing musicians to stay long past their ‘sell-by date’. Then, finally, the musician in question would get invited to a ‘lunch with Jimmy’, and they’d be gently asked to move on. These days the process has been a bit less gentle, I’m guessing, marked by a very high-profile public dispute between incoming Music Director Carlos Kalmar and then Principal flutist Dawn Weiss, which ultimately led to the end of her OSO tenure.

But, regardless of the music director’s attitude towards personnel issues, there will come a time when an orchestral musician will literally be called to face the music. Many of us take great pride in what we do, and there is a lot of truth in the adage that experience can make up for some loss of technical aplomb, but I wonder why it is that some of us are unwilling to admit that we are not capable of performing at the requisite high standard day in and day out. Playing in an orchestra – especially a full-time major orchestra – is the equivalent of running a marathon every single week of the season. It places great physical and mental demands upon us. But there are many factors involved in recognizing when the time has come, or if there are a few years left to go.

Financial concerns are perhaps the most important factor taken into consideration. This is even more true with the perilous state of the national musicians’ union pension fund. Most musicians, unless they’re in one of the wealthiest orchestras, work more than one job to make ends meet, and funding one’s retirement is a fraught business. It’s easy to say “that person should hang up their axe and retire” but if they don’t have enough money to live on once their orchestral income stream stops, how likely are they to make that decision?

Pride is another factor. We all have egos – it would be hard to be a performing artist if we did not. We train for decades, and audition perhaps dozens of times, before we – if we’re lucky – win a position in a living wage orchestra. When we arrive, we are the fair-haired boy/girl who can do no wrong. Accolades roll in. Pretty soon, however, as we approach middle age, there are newer, shinier members of the orchestra who arrive, and we are part of the older guard. It’s easy to bristle under those circumstances. Resentment can creep in, antagonisms with our respective sections can arise, and tensions with the music director can begin or start to get worse. Even if one is able to objectively view one’s performance quality, and realize that it is slipping, there is going to be considerable resistance to that notion, especially if we think that our colleagues are conspiring against us, or that the music director has an axe to grind. Entrenchment begins, and denial strengthens. It’s hard to see a way out of that which doesn’t end in failure, humiliation, or betrayal. No wonder it’s such a difficult decision to make.

An additional factor, which is oft overlooked, is that musicians have been doing music for a long, long time. And during that time it has been one of, if not the, central defining aspects of their lives. Leaving active performing in an orchestra that you’ve spent the majority of your life with is a major, major decision. It is akin to a divorce or losing a family member in terms of emotional impact. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

On the other hand, I’ve witnessed colleagues who have woken up one day and realized that they were simply done. They had a great run, and it was time to move on to greener pastures and play for the joy of it for a change. I see them at concerts – some quite often – and they appear a decade younger than in their last season with the orchestra. It’s pretty gratifying to see that there is a graceful way to retire on one’s own terms (even if it might be relatively rare). However, just as every person is different, so too is every musician’s decision to stay or go an individual one, and one that must be respected. I hope that, when my time comes, that I will have the wherewithal, self-awareness, and humility to make the decision that is best for both myself and my colleagues. Fingers crossed!

contract some mahleria

Last night was the first performance of our classical series for this week. As I’m on work hardening and only playing the opening Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 (with fabulous soloist Alexi Kenney), it was my treat to get to sit out in the audience (in the rarified Dress Circle, no less!) for the Mahler Sixth Symphony portion of the program.

What a performance it was! Astonishingly good. It’s hard to grasp, when you’re in the trenches, so to speak, just how the orchestra sounds as a whole. Let me tell you, it sounds amazing. This Mahler symphony has been one that I’ve warmed to slowly (not as slowly as the Seventh, though), but it has many rewards for the attentive listener. If you’re at all on the fence about coming for the remaining performances (Sunday at 2pm, Monday at 7:30pm), I’d whole-heartedly reccomend you do so. It will be a concert you’ll remember for a long time! Oregon Symphony website.

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mozart & mahler

Today was my first day at work for this week’s classical series concerts. Rehearsals for the rest of the orchestra (those playing the Mahler 6th) began on Wednesday. I’m still transitioning to full-time work by playing partial concerts, so I get to play the Mozart G major Violin Concerto this week, with our new-to-me soloist Alexi Kenney.

Violinist Alexi Kenney

I’m at the back of the section again – to avoid disrupting the seating of everyone in the section – and find myself sharing a stand (or rather two stands) with Martha Warrington, who I haven’t regularly sat with since I first joined the orchestra in 1995. We had a laugh over that!

The OSO rehearsing Mahler 6 with Carlos Kalmar, and not me.

It was great to arrive early for my part of the rehearsal and hear this magnificent band play the finale of the Mahler. Terrifying music, played to the hilt, it’s going to be exceptional. Every section of the orchestra sounds fantastic. I’m trying not to feel too bad about missing out by not playing it, but it’s the right thing to do, recovery-wise.

I can’t get over what a different universe it is playing in the back of a string section than playing at the front. In our hall I can see the first desks just fine, but have no inkling of how they’re playing passages, unless I spend all of my time looking at them to figure out bow strokes, etc. I can’t really even hear the stand right in front of me. I can really hear the double basses, though. I can sort of hear my stand partner, but only if we’re out of sync.

What I can hear – besides the basses – is the soloist, the winds, and occasionally the first violins. The second violin section may as well be on another planet, which is especially vexing as they and the violas share a lot of inner voice figuration. I think I can sometimes hear the cello section, but I’m not entirely sure about that.

Anyway, it was so nice to be back, and not tagged onto the end by myself this time. I have been worrying a lot about coming back from a long absence and being in the back – it’s a double case of unfamiliarity. Last week I played the Chick Corea special, on the front stand, but the violas were sitting inside for the first time in eons, and that didn’t really count as ‘normal’ due to the novelty of the situation.

Next week I’ll be back in my normal location for the entire concert, and it’s going to be pretty special. We’re doing a full production of The Tempest by Jean Sibelius. It’s completely unknown to me – I never even read the play in my English literature courses – but the cast is stellar and the production values should be high. It’ll be a concert evening that you won’t want to miss! Check out the deets here.