Washington's small orchestras are striking a key note

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 10:51 AM

Chee-Yun is a Korean-born violinist who has won an Avery Fisher career grant, has played with the world's leading orchestras, and gave a solo recital at the Kennedy Center in October. This week, she's coming to an orchestra - or two - near you.

Not the National Symphony Orchestra, but the smaller National Philharmonic, with whom she is playing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" at Strathmore this weekend (the last concert is Sunday at 3 p.m.). And not the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, with whom she will play Walton's Violin Concerto on Jan. 15 at George Mason University, a mere 23 miles away.

These orchestras - with annual operating budgets of $2 million and $1.2 million respectively, as opposed to the NSO's $30 million - are the largest of some 25 small orchestras in the Washington region, ranging from professional ensembles to amateur community groups.

"I think we're sort of the forgotten musicians sometimes," says Adrienne Sommerville, a violist who plays with the National Philharmonic, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, the Maryland Symphony and, at times, the BSO, among others.

Small orchestras are a key part of classical music's ecosystem. A full 80 percent of the membership of the League of American Orchestras, the national service organization, are groups with budgets of $2 million or less. They don't play nearly as many concerts as their larger brethren - that 80 percent represents only 20 percent of League members' performances - and no one would claim they're as good as, say, the NSO (though you'd be surprised how many have a few of the same players). But they face many of the same challenges: declining audiences, financial difficulties, a desire to help train young musicians and win new audiences for classical music.

These days, small orchestras have a lot of traits that larger orchestras are increasingly trying to emulate. In 2003, the Knight Foundation issued a sobering report outlining radical changes that orchestras might have to undergo to survive in the 21st century: playing a range of different music in different venues; focusing on community relations; working on educational strategies - all things that many small orchestras already have.

This certainly doesn't mean that small orchestras are better equipped than large ones to weather the current financial climate. Many are struggling, a couple have folded, and freelancers who play in the professional ones tell of less work and lower pay scales. Musicians, says Sommerville, are "negotiating pay cuts and pay freezes so these groups can stay above water." For one National Philharmonic concert last spring, some players donated their services.

But small orchestras do have one thing going for them. They represent amateurism in the original sense of the word: a genuine love of making music.

"I feel like the amateur players in McLean are actually more serious than the professional musicians about music," says violinist Regino Madrid, a professional who plays with the Marine Chamber Orchestra and is also the concertmaster of the semi-professional McLean Orchestra.

And that genuine enjoyment is sometimes reflected in performances, even if they're not technically as perfect as those of larger orchestras.

"I go to the NSO and it's fine," said Pat Edwards, a board member of the Annapolis Symphony, a $1.2 million professional orchestra that will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2011-12. "I go to the Annapolis Symphony, and it's fun."

It's hard to generalize about small orchestras. Amateur orchestras aren't necessarily smaller than professional ones: The Prince George's Philharmonic in Maryland, a community orchestra, has a bigger operating budget ($150,000) than the all-professional Virginia Chamber Orchestra ($100,000). And amateur orchestras aren't necessarily safer from financial duress: The Prince George's Philharmonic had to make staff cuts last season.

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