Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Variations on a Theme

As more professional orchestras face unprecedented upheaval and financial peril the symphonic musicians intone the same dire threat during bargaining negotiations: talent will leave and move elsewhere if you lower our salary and benefits. But that leads me to ponder: where, exactly, are all those symphony orchestra musicians intending to go? It's not as if the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony or Los Angeles Philharmonic can absorb hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians. This thought haunts me: how many fiddlers does the world really need anyway?

I'm at the age, fortunately, when I can look back upon decades of performance. When I began my professional career as a violinist there were countless opportunities, everything from Hollywood studio film recording sessions to commercial jingles to countless chamber music engagements. In my early twenties, I lived in Los Angeles. During that time and place, to audition and join the philharmonic was perceived by many as a sell-out, like marriage, a life bound by servitude and loss of artistic individuality. One could embark upon a more lucrative career performing as a freelancer for the film studios, in the company of top talents, while enjoying a diversified professional life in music and beyond.

But nowadays, for the musical artist unaffiliated with any juggernaut organization, for the lone journeyer traveling a path of his or her own, one might feel alienated and at times, dislocated. I know that I sometimes do. And that is one reason why it is ever so important for me to pursue what I believe in, as in rendering the Bach/Schumann version of the "Chaconne" with my gifted  colleague, Alyssa Fridenmaker. We must constantly find new ways to challenge ourselves artistically, first and foremost, regardless of popular trends.

There's a perception of arrogance from those within any professional arts organization, particularly orchestras: we're too big and too great to fail. Yet, I suggest, that while many professional orchestras drift, out of fiscal necessity, into recalibration mode, they might reassess the theme of tenure. We all know, by this time, that orchestra musicians can retain their posts long past their prime. I could pick out a number of musicians hardly able to stay on task, for their skill level, perhaps never on the par of today's talent pool, may have lowered or dropped to an embarrassing degree. The first desk player of any orchestra must prove himself time and time again during exposed solo passages, but the section player? And, perhaps, those section members who are most insecure about their own playing are the first to deny tenure to deserving, qualified, younger musicians. Committees have their ways and means; some music directors fail to lead but just follow.

Forgive me, but I think a regular re-audition, similar to a periodic driver's test, might offer a remedy for Orchestritis. Besides, for any musician to be deemed fit for the substitute or extra list, the player must usually pass an annual audition, at least in most places. Why not the same deal for salaried musicians? 

Finally, not every professional musician warrants the title of artist. This is sometimes a misnomer, for quite a few musicians are fortunate if they just manage to play correct notes in the proper place at the proper time; mere machinery, as in hitting the right buttons. What about the expressive performer with strong communicative powers and temperament? Might philanthropic dollars be wisely spent supporting the smaller, more individual enterprises such as solo recitals, salon concerts, and intimate chamber music gatherings? Sustainable energy, perhaps.