Now and then I play in the Livermore-Amador Symphony. I try not to make a habit of it, but I’ve done about four concerts with them, so I may as well admit I’m a part-time member. (But see the Footnote, below.)
Tonight the principal cellist sent an email asking if I’m going to play the December concert. If I’m not going to, he said, they’ll have to hire a ringer (a paid semi-pro) so that the cello section will be strong enough.
Here’s the puzzle: I’m expected to play for free. Nobody is offering to pay me. But if I can’t do the gig, they’ll hire someone and give them money. So in essence, by volunteering to play the gig, I’m allowing the Symphony Association to keep a few extra bucks in the bank, with which they can … I don’t know what. Fund some frivolity or other, I’m sure.
I’m not blaming the principal cellist for this situation, you understand. He indicated he basically agrees with me, or at least understands my position. The central difficulty, it seems to me, is that the Symphony is indulging in mixed motives and muddled priorities.
On the one hand, the group is supposed to be a community orchestra, made up of volunteers — talented local amateurs who have the time and desire to play some classical music. It’s an admirable vision. But alas, the community suffers from a shortage of talent in certain key areas. I’m not sure which chairs would be unoccupied in the absence of paid ringers, but I’m betting there would be several of them, perhaps in the wind section.
On the other hand, the Symphony needs to support itself, at least in part, by selling tickets. Granted, the expectations of classical music audiences in Livermore are not very high. (Trust me on this. If expectations were high, within a few years the Symphony would be playing to an empty hall.) But letting the already somewhat relaxed standards of performance to which the group aspires slip any further would very likely result in lost ticket sales and a precipitous decline in donor contributions. So money has to be spent securing the services of a few competent players.
Either that or play nothing but the easiest stuff in the orchestral repertoire, which would bore both musicians and audiences.
The result, unfortunately, is that local musicians are getting ripped off. We’re supposed to do it because we love music, while sitting next to us are people who do it because they’re getting paid. Perhaps they’re not getting paid very much — I wouldn’t know. It’s the principle of the thing that bothers me. I don’t have very damn much money, I’ll tell you that. Even a few extra bucks would be welcome.
I’m a talented local musician — the kind of person they would like to have be a regular member of the group. Yet the Symphony Association thinks they can disrespect and insult me by asking me to play for free.
I’ve already told the principal cellist I’ll play the December concert, even if there’s no money in it. But I think I may raise a stink with the Symphony Association. This shit just ain’t right.
Footnote (Oct. 14): After sitting through the rehearsal tonight, I changed my mind. I told them I wouldn’t play the concert. If the group had six weeks to learn just the Mendelssohn symphony and the Vaughan Williams “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”, I would have stuck with it. The experience would have been painful, but there would have been a musical reward of sorts at the end of the process.
Unfortunately, the concert will also include a banjo soloist who plays pops music with orchestral accompaniments. His charts have a lot of stops and starts and tempo changes: They’re very showy. Not only is the material a complete loss in an artistic sense (as far as I could tell from listening to the strings at rehearsal tonight, it isn’t even a competently arranged Stephen Foster medley), the Livermore Symphony has no hope whatever of being able to play it.
I was initially under the impression that the banjo player would be doing the afternoon concert, which I couldn’t have played in any case, because I teach on Saturday afternoons. But even if that were correct, an orchestra whose skill level is so marginal has no business trying to rehearse two complete concerts in six or seven weeks. The Mendelssohn and the Vaughan Williams will be hopelessly sabotaged by the need to rehearse the banjo music.
It’s a damn shame, because I would really like to be more active in my local music community. But I would be ashamed to appear onstage with this group when the audience is expected to pay $20 or more per ticket. If they were playing for free in the park … no, I wouldn’t do that either, but at least the audience would be getting what they paid for.