Making It Personal
4 Apr 2011
Inside the Classics

Sometimes, it seems like the cycle of bad news never ends in this business. The usual storyline goes like this: the economy hits a rock and starts taking on water, and orchestra endowments plummet as a result. Small and medium-sized regional orchestras that don’t have much of a financial cushion (and that were often being badly managed when times were good) suddenly find themselves up against a wall. Managers and music directors take pay cuts to show leadership, and musicians make sweeping salary and benefit concessions (sometimes several times) to try to stabilize things, but it’s not enough. Eventually, the board, weary of the constant emergency fundraising campaigns and the back-and-forth with musicians over the future of the organization, just pulls the plug, and whoosh – an orchestra disappears overnight.

Since this particular recession began, it’s happened in Charleston, it’s happened in Honolulu, and now, it’s happened in Syracuse. (The caveat here is that technically, the Syracuse Symphony isn’t totally giving up on its future, but they have canceled the remainder of the current season, and no one sounds very optimistic about next season, either. Late update, 4/6: Forget the caveat. The SSO board has now announced plans to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.) The fallout is pretty immediate, and always follows the same basic script: the local press dutifully reports the shutdown and bemoans the loss of the orchestra; the internet trolls pounce on the comments section and write every hateful thing they can think of about classical music, the arts, musicians, and unions; the musicians issue press releases to counter the ones the orchestra management is sending out; and then, one day, it all just fades away.

I don’t want to talk about any of that today, though. I want to talk about my friend Wendy.

I’ve known Wendy since the fall of 1997, when she was a freshman in Jeff Irvine’s viola studio at Oberlin Conservatory, and I was a senior in the same studio. She was a confident, outgoing kid with a big voice (she’s a singer as well as a violist) and a fantastic sense of humor. She and I hit it off, and we spent more nights than I can remember that year hanging out at my decrepit little house on Groveland Street, drinking beer, talking about music, and indulging our obsessions with baseball and pro wrestling. (Don’t judge – we were young, and actually, WCW was pretty entertaining in the late ’90s.)

The other thing about Wendy that I remember from that school year was the first time I heard her play in studio class. Studio class is where music students who study with the same teacher get together on a regular basis to perform for each other and then get comments from the room. It’s meant to be a less pressure-packed environment than a formal recital would be, but in reality, it’s pretty nerve-wracking to stand in front of everyone else who does exactly the thing you do and submit yourself for their approval. It’s especially scary when you’re a freshman. But the moment Wendy took the stage and started to play, heads jerked up all over the room. Glances were exchanged. None of us had to say anything to each other – everyone there was thinking the same thought. Oh, yeah: this one’s the real thing.

I think non-musicians often assume that everyone who heads off to music school winds up as a working musician eventually, but it doesn’t work like that. A shockingly small percentage will ever actually be able to hold down a living just by performing, even if you mix in some teaching on the side. But Wendy was the real thing, and besides being a knock-you-down great musician, she was smart, creative, and willing to take risks to get the career she wanted. When she graduated, she became a founding member of ICE, one of the most prominent new music ensembles in the country today. (Like eighth blackbird before it, ICE grew out of Oberlin’s extraordinary Contemporary Music Ensemble, of which I’m also a proud alum.) Less than a year after getting her bachelor’s degree, she was already playing world premieres of Berio and Saariaho, and carving out what music writers are beginning to call the new “entrepreneurial” music career.

These days, Wendy and her husband, Tim, a percussionist, make their home in Ithaca, where Tim’s been holding down a teaching position at a major university and Wendy is within a day’s drive of New York, Boston, Syracuse, and all the other various places she hauls her viola case around to. When the economy turned sour, and music jobs, even freelance gigs, started drying up across the country, Wendy dug into her orchestra excerpts and managed to score herself a full-time, one-year position that might have had a chance of becoming a permanent seat in the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.

The money wouldn’t be much – full-time SSO players earn less than $30,000 a year, and aren’t paid year round. But it was something, and it came with health insurance, which is no small thing for Wendy, who fell off a darkened stage in the Berkshires several years ago and shattered her ankle, leading to chronic pain and health issues that continue to this day. And more than being a convenience, the orchestra job became essential when Tim was told that his teaching gig at the university would shortly be reduced in stages to a 1/2-time position. He started searching for a new job immediately, but “percussion professor” isn’t a job listing you find in the want ads too often, and competition is fierce on the rare occasion that some music school does have an opening.

Working around her new SSO schedule (which included a daily commute of more than an hour each way,) Wendy kept up a huge teaching schedule in Ithaca, and kept driving all over creation to perform with ICE, as well as countless other ensembles in cities and towns across the Northeast and beyond. It was a massive load to carry, but I’ve never once heard Wendy complain about hard work, and I don’t expect I ever will.

Six weeks ago, Wendy was informed that the full-time violist she had replaced in the SSO had decided to return next season, so her position would not transition to a permanent one. This was bad if not entirely unexpected news, and Wendy and Tim began to evaluate their options. Should they move back to Boston and start all over again establishing new connections in the freelance scene and trying to cobble together vaguely satisfying careers in between the inevitable wedding gigs? Should Wendy go back to school (not an option for Tim, who already has a doctorate) yet again, and maybe even pursue a degree in something less fragile than classical music? Maybe they could stick it out in Ithaca, and assume that things could only get better from here. Wendy would still be getting some part-time work in Syracuse, though the wages there had been shrinking rapidly in recent seasons, and gas wasn’t getting any cheaper.

And then, last week, the bombshell: the Syracuse Symphony would be going dark as of Monday. The musicians would finish out the week’s schedule, play one final concert, and then be laid off, perhaps forever, along with nearly all the orchestra’s full and part-time staffers. The decision was final, and 75 musicians went, in an instant, from being the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra to being… well, 75 musicians. 75 unemployed musicians.

I’ve long thought that one of the things that keeps audiences from making a more personal connection with orchestra musicians is that there are just so danged many of us up there on stage, and we’re all dressed alike, and then there’s this conductor waving his arms who takes all the bows for us, and from the audience, we must just look like a monolithic thing. We might as well be The Borg up there, as far as most concertgoers are concerned. This isn’t anyone’s fault, really, it’s just the way of things, but it does mean that when a symphony orchestra closes its doors, an awful lot of people think, “Oh, that’s a shame,” and then go about their day, because while they value the concept of the orchestra, they don’t actually know anyone who plays in it.

But I know someone who does, and now you know her, too. She’d appreciate a few good thoughts in the weeks and months ahead.

<February 2020>

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