An Insider’s Look Into Shop Talk

Ever since this blog launched in 2003, readers have always been more inclined to share thoughts via private email. Even though those exchanges regularly contain insightful content, their very nature prohibits public consumption. Nonetheless, guest blogger Chris Blair and I ended up having a fascinating exchange in the process of determining whether or not Chris would participate in this year’s guest blogging and ultimately, Chris decided that sharing the email exchange was in and of itself, a good guest author post…

From: Drew McManus
To: Christopher Blair
Sent: Tue, July 20, 2010 9:40:57 AM
Subject: Re: guest blogging

Hey Chris,

Just touching base to see if you’re still interested in the guest blogging – let me know and if you have something in mind, go ahead and send it along anytime.


Chris: Drew, I’m invoking the procrastinator’s favorite motto: “Hard work may pay off in the long run, but laziness pays off right now!”
Seriously. I’m suffering from “blogging bloc”. Absolutely unable to find a topic where my opinions would be remotely interesting and informative.

Some ideas I considered (“Mad Men: The Plight of Aging Conductors in the American Orchestra Marketing Environment”) have already been addressed by others. I would have to do significantly more research to turn that discussion into more than an anecdotal exercise or re-hash.

However, if I think of something more “tractable”, I’ll certainly send it along for you to use whenever you want.

Drew: I’ll send along some ideas, too, if I think of any. But I think your recent Honolulu comment might be a good source for inspiration, especially from the perspective of someone that has started an orchestra from scratch and knows what it takes.

Chris: OK. There are others, much more qualified than I, to opine about the Hawaii situation (including behavioral therapists), but I’ll step off this cliff:

I think the unavoidable problem in Honolulu is that unless a musician there has some other reliable source of income (university teaching, etc.) a $3,000 annual salary doesn’t solve anything. How will they attract quality players with so few appropriate performance opportunities outside the orchestra?

Drew: They have that problem now with the previous salary. Player turnover among ICSOM orchestras is among highest because the pay was so low and other opportunities simply don’t exist in quantities to supply everyone with necessary additional income.

A number of players have gone out on their own to including starting up a 501c3 chamber group. This provides some with a bit of additional income as well as contributing to an improved cultural climate, but the work schedule the HSO maintains prevents going too far in that direction. It’s a double edged sword, the more flexibility musicians give the HSO with regard to service scheduling and work rules, the harder it is for them to develop these ancillary playing (and income) opportunities.

When it comes down to it, the lack of adequate base compensation and steady work schedule prevents any seedlings from taking root.

Chris: According to HUD statistics for 2009, median household income in Honolulu was $79,300. Elsewhere in the state non-metro areas significantly less as low as $67,500 on the Big Island.

If we proceed (for the moment) on the assumption of two income households, individual income in the state need to fall in the $35,000 to $40,000 range, depending upon location, to achieve a sort of “middle ground” of economic achievement.  The base salary level for the HSO at $30,855 prior to filing bankruptcy falls well below these numbers, but private and possibly adjunct university teaching income might have put them within theoretical reach.

With the 90% cut proposed for HSO income under reorganization, only symphony musicians with full-time teaching jobs (or high income spouses) will be able to afford to stay. The opportunities for significant alternative performance income for these highly-trained musicians are simply not there in Hawaii. The core orchestra of 63 players will suffer serious attrition with no full-time replacements in the pipeline.

Drew: Well, I hear rumors that management is planning on implementing the whole “enthusiastic amateurs alongside pros” flavor of the month as a way to fill out the ensemble while still calling it a fully professional orchestra. Granted, it’s completely unconfirmed but if they would consider something like that, basic arithmetic points out that given the annual budget range they’ve been talking about, they still wouldn’t be able to pay an ensemble comprised of only first stand players enough of a living wage in that area to make it worthwhile.

Chris: Yes, that would be more correctly the “Community Orchestra with ‘Ringers'” model. The only solution I can imagine for providing a first-class orchestra in the state under these restrictions is well outside the box: Create a cooperative orchestra of excellent players who don’t really need the income.

In real estate it is “location, location, location”. For those of retirement age it can be “climate, climate, climate.”

Imagine, if you will, a core ensemble of pensioned major symphony players recruited to spend their “declining” years in Paradise performing with their esteemed colleagues. Sure, their playing chops may not be at their peak, but probably much higher than what is already there. (And their collective experience on another plane entirely).

These players would follow news of the retirements of their compatriots in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, Cleveland, and other similarly cold, nasty, places, and if there is a suitable opening, invite them to join.

There would be no expensive permanent conductor. Eminent conductors would be invited by the ensemble, as is done with the Vienna Philharmonic (another cooperative group).  I can’t imagine a conductor who wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to lead (and learn) from this musical gene pool.

OK. Maybe I am crazy. But maybe not. And what is the realistic alternative?

Drew: I don’t think exists and what I’m afraid of is another itinerant orchestra carpet- bagging situation. If that happens, then the hope of getting a resident professional orchestra is gone for decades. And in the end, it’s the community that suffers the most in that scenario.

Happy thoughts, no?

Chris: Well, it is gone for decades now, in my estimation. I suspect Hawaii cannot afford regular visits of a major orchestra like Cleveland if it cannot even afford what it has, but then again the cachet might satisfy some major sponsors.

Drew: If the money were there, I believe they would do it too. That’s the real kick in the kadiddlehopper. My hunch is sponsors won’t even pursue a residency so much as pull in a big budget group from a Big 5 through Seattle 4-6 times a season.

Chris: The fact that touring musicians are not constantly there to populate the teaching faculties of local universities and promote the art form in a sustainable way is not part of the equation as far as the sponsors are concerned. They are focused on presenting concerts and not really asking to what purpose they are doing so.

If their task is simply to present the series of seven concerts per year typical of a regional orchestra, do they deal with the hassle of forming a second-rate ensemble themselves, or do they opt to drop bigger bucks on outsourcing quality?

Drew: Exactly! I made that precise point at the Orchestra Summit in Ann Arbor in January, and half the room just blinked and the other half shouted “Amen!” (not literally, but the sentiment was there). If we really believe there is value in having professional musicians reside in a community (and I do) then the residency program routinely denies that critical benefit and relegates communities to being presenters.

Residencies in lieu of a professional resident orchestra are dangerous, whereas residencies in addition to a resident professional orchestra can be very positive, like the sorts of residencies carried out by National Orchestra.

Chris: You are right about the ready availability of other fine ensembles. Nashville, for example, would probably do a fine residency program in Hawaii and probably be delighted to do so.  (Who wouldn’t jump at a two-week paid “music camp” in Hawaii in February?)

However, regarding professional resident orchestras and the lack thereof: When I was attending the University of Vermont back in the Dark Ages we were visited by the Cleveland Orchestra under Boulez, the Toronto Symphony under Ozawa, the Minnesota Orchestra under Skrowachewski, and more. Did I feel deprived of a local orchestra? I did not. But of course I played in the University Orchestra, so this may not be a remotely fair comparison. (And these orchestras don’t tour as much as they used to in the hinterlands.)

Drew: I would also say that there is a distinct difference in residencies and guest appearances. I know Nashville has had several big budget groups in, and I think that’s very healthy. But it certainly isn’t a replacement for a full time professional group, regardless if it is a string of guests or a longer residency.

Chris: Nashville welcomed the Cleveland Orchestra four months (I think) after Schermerhorn Symphony Center opened. One hope was that the Nashville players would attend and learn something about how a top-ranked orchestra would play in the hall.  This visit was quite successful in that regard. The Nashville upper brass, in particular, backed off their aggressive playing (acquired in their previous hall) for a darker sound. (Interestingly, this has also allowed the forest of plexiglass shields protecting the hearing of those in front of them to disappear).

Another reason was to show off the new hall. In this regard I was actually a little disappointed in parts of the concert. The Ginastera was beautifully played, absolutely wonderful; the Mahler 1st a little too “polite” for my taste.

Drew: I was at that concert too and agree on the assessment. And I wholeheartedly agree with the reasoning behind bringing then in. The more comparison the better.

Chris: The sad thing this year was the flood that prevented the LA Philharmonic on its first US Tour in 10 years from playing at Schermerhorn.

Drew: The LA miss was very sad but I’m very happy to see that they still performed, even if it wasn’t at the Schermerhorn.

Chris: Yes. However, looking forward, there are two orchestras I would really love to hear there even more than LA before I check out: Boston, to hear how that orchestra responds to a room so strongly influenced by Symphony Hall, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra which gracefully inhabits the other acoustic progenitor of the Nashville room.
Well, Drew, I guess that we have inadvertently created a cultural conversation between us that could serve as a blog entry if carefully edited to protect the innocent.
Are there innocent?

OK. Strike that idea. Way too dangerous!

Yours truly
-Cowardly Lion

Drew: Awww, I was going to suggest just that!

About Christopher Blair

As Senior Scientist and Principal Consultant, he collaborates on all the firm’s major projects, focusing in particular on room acoustic design. Chris’ contributions can be heard in the widely praised Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the Nashville Symphony, the Rosch Recital Hall at SUNY-Fredonia (photo, top right), Mixon Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and in renovations to the Eastman Theatre and the new Hatch Recital Hall for the Eastman School of Music, among others.Chris earned dual Bachelors degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Music from the University of Vermont and Masters degrees in Orchestral Conducting from the New England Conservatory, and in Acoustics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been a member of the faculties of M.I.T., UMASS/Lowell, Brown University, and Yale University, and currently serves on the Strategic Planning Committee of the New Haven Symphony and the Board of Directors of the Conductors Guild.

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