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Washington's small orchestras are striking a key note

By Anne Midgette
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.

The NOVA Manassas Symphony Orchestra is one amateur group that has come through the recession relatively unscathed. Indeed, its budget has risen from $10,000 to $60,000 in six years, mainly because it was readying itself for higher fees charged by the Hylton Performing Arts Center, its new performance home.

The new hall is a mixed blessing. Andy Loerch, the orchestra's principal bassoonist and publicity committee chair (by day an engineering professor at George Mason University) wryly observes that the echoes in Grace United Methodist Church in Manassas, where the group used to perform, better hid mistakes. But the hall does enable the orchestra to seat twice as many - from a few hundred to more than a thousand - and attendance has soared at the group's first two concerts there.

This inequity between Prince George's and NOVA Manassas seems to be the national norm. According to League spokeswoman Judith Kurnick, half of the 14 orchestras on the League's advisory committee "were reporting positive results this year; some had surpluses, record attendance goals, and others were almost at death's door."

Variable, too, is the quality. There are top-notch small orchestras around Washington - the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, founded and conducted by NSO horn player Sylvia Alimena, is made up of NSO players interested in varying their musical diet. A community orchestra like NOVA Manassas, by contrast, is mainly of interest to the neighborhood.

Financial crisis, though, has helped raise quality, in a way. With fewer and fewer permanent orchestra jobs available, more talented instrumentalists are becoming freelancers - or opting to pursue another career and play in a community orchestra on the side.

Today, "even community orchestras," says A. Scott Wood, who conducts the professional Amadeus Orchestra and Arlington Philharmonic, as well as a couple of community orchestras, "sometimes rise to a level that would have made the NSO proud when they started."

Musicians in community orchestras have day jobs, meet once a week to rehearse and convene for an extra rehearsal the day before a concert. But for professional freelancers - rehearsing three or four times the week before a concert with one group, then moving on to the next - piecing together a living isn't easy. Musicians get $75 to $100 for a service, sometimes less for a rehearsal, and salaries are falling. As area choruses rely less on orchestral accompaniment, and the Washington Ballet has cut out live music, there are fewer performance opportunities.

Yet these days, even a steady orchestra job is no guarantee of job security. "Of course it would be nice to land a big gig," says Ed Malaga, a double-bass player with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, who sometimes plays with the NSO, the BSO, the National Philharmonic and other groups. But "when I think of some of the places I was considering, and see that they're in trouble, like Columbus . . . " - the Columbus Symphony recently cut its players' salaries by 27 percent - "maybe the stability comes from not having stability," Malaga says. "If I'm part of 10 groups, which I am or have been, then if one has difficulty, there's another group that will be able to get me through."

Malaga and his wife, a cellist, are both freelancers. They are raising two children, and making it work.

Yet music directors also need to cater to the more conservative tastes of their audiences. Gajewski says the National Philharmonic gets 60 percent of its revenue from ticket sales - for many orchestras, that figure is only 15 or 20 percent - and his audiences won't buy tickets for unfamiliar work. Joel Lazar, another conductor, says the suburban audience's conception of the standard repertory cuts off about 40 years earlier than that in a major urban center.

When Gajewski programs less-known things, he has to find a marketing angle. Next year's performance of Debussy's "Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien" will be offered in the context of a small Debussy festival marketed through the French Embassy and to the Catholic community.

Gajewski may have a harder time because tickets to the National Philharmonic are more expensive. The orchestra offers 36 concerts a year instead of the four or five presented by most of these smaller groups, and this weekend's highest ticket price is $79. Fairfax's highest price for next weekend is $55. But most small orchestras cost far less: You can hear the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra on March 6 for $25; and the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, since 2008, has offered its concerts free. People are more willing to take a chance on unknown repertory if it's not costing them a lot of money.

In any case, not every conductor is as wary as Gajewski of the less-known. "I can say happily, and I hope not recklessly, that there's nothing I wouldn't program," says Christopher Zimmerman, music director of the Fairfax Symphony, who is offering Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, a spare, atonal work, alongside Beethoven and Sibelius at his next concert on March 19.

New music offers other challenges for a small orchestra. First, you may not be able to afford it: It's more expensive to rent music still under copyright. "It's a major event fiscally to do [Strauss's] 'Four Last Songs' and the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto with the Symphony of the Potomac," says Lazar, who has led that all-volunteer orchestra, formerly the JCC Symphony Orchestra, for many years, and who also conducts the newer Washington Sinfonietta and Ars Nova Chamber Orchestra.

Second, your musicians might not be able to play it; and if they work hard enough at it to learn it, it may be at the expense of the other pieces on the program. "If a major orchestra does an extremely complicated work," Lazar says, "they can do Tchaikovsky" on the same program - "they have it in their fingers," so it needs relatively little rehearsal. "We don't have that routine," Lazar adds. "You're ensemble-building constantly. . . . You're having to invent the wheel to a certain extent all the time."

Historically, new music hasn't always been foreign to Washington's smaller orchestras. The National Gallery of Art Orchestra, established in 1943, gave the first-ever performance of Charles Ives's First Symphony some 10 years later.

The orchestras themselves aren't new at all. The Alexandria and Fairfax Symphonies were founded in 1954 and 1957, respectively; the string ensemble of Washington's Friday Morning Music Club has been going strong since 1943. While new groups are always springing up - Ars Nova, the Washington Sinfonietta and CounterPoint have started since 2006 - the majority were founded before 1990.

They have been home to some dynamic musical personalities. Barry Tuckwell, the internationally known horn player, founded the Maryland Symphony in 1982 and led it until 1998 (it's now under the baton of Elizabeth Schulze, a former associate conductor at the NSO). Leon Fleisher, the famous pianist, was music director of the Annapolis Symphony for 12 seasons.

There have also been dramatic schisms. In 1986, the conductor Dingwall Fleary, who founded the McLean Orchestra in 1971, had a run-in with the board about making the orchestra more professional and quit - followed by nearly all of the musicians. Fleary reconstituted his group as the all-volunteer McLean Symphony; the board found new musicians to continue the McLean Orchestra, which is now semi-professional.

That orchestra reached new heights under Eclipse's Alimena, who also served as McLean's music director for seven seasons, but in 2010 she and the cash-strapped board were unable to reach terms over her contract renewal, and the orchestra is looking for a new music director. Its administrative leader is John Huling, a former trombonist with the NSO who has been through his own life drama: His performing career with the NSO was cut short when a baseball hit him in the mouth during a game of catch.

Small orchestras, just like big ones, are trying to reinvent themselves. Both the Fairfax Symphony and the Alexandria Symphony are planning long-range change: different kinds of concerts, new venues, the addition of chamber ensembles.

"Everything is on the table," says Adrien Finlay, the executive director of the Alexandria Symphony, even a name change: The group will soon be known as Symphonica Nova. It will thus join the ranks of small orchestras moving away from local branding, following the Montgomery Chamber Orchestra-cum-National Philharmonic and the former Mount Vernon Symphony Orchestra, now the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic. These groups may be local, but it helps, evidently, to sound as big as possible. Even the NOVA Manassas Symphony Orchestra, Loerch says, experienced a big jump in interest and membership after it changed its name from NOVA Manassas Community Orchestra.

Rebranding may be a way to mask the fact that in their actual makeup, there's not that much difference between one orchestra and another, as many of them draw on the same pool of freelancers. "Whether you're going to the Post-Classical Ensemble or [the] Fairfax [Symphony] or the Alexandria Symphony or the National Philharmonic," says Malaga, the bass player, "you see a lot of the same people show up."

And indeed, many of the groups are eager to collaborate with other institutions. Given the high cost of advertising, such collaboration is a cost-effective way to get your name in front of a wider public. Last season, the Amadeus Orchestra was planning a performance of Karl Jenkins's "Mass for Peace" with a consortium of local choirs. Then Wood, the conductor, learned that the Vienna Choral Society had scheduled the same work for the preceding day.

"I called up the music director," Wood says, "and said, 'We should think of doing something together.' " The groups joined forces and offered two performances, one at each venue, with orchestra and double choir.

Soloists, too, are solicitous of smaller orchestras as an important part of the world they move in. At the National Philharmonic, which is searching for a concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, the NSO concertmaster, has been filling in at some concerts, supporting a local organization and her new husband, Erich Heckscher, who is the orchestra's principal bassoonist.

The star violinist Midori has started a residencies program to work with smaller orchestras and youth orchestras with combined budgets of under $4.5 million; she'll be coming to the Alexandria Symphony, or rather Symphonica Nova, in 2012.

Chee-Yun's double appearances this week, therefore, may be a sign of the times. Fairfax's Zimmerman, for one, isn't too bothered about the overlap; in his view, it simply spotlights the different profiles of the two orchestras, as the violinist plays a warhorse with the National Philharmonic and a less familiar work with Fairfax. The orchestras both get a big name; the artist gets wider exposure, and everybody wins.

"Hurray for us," says Elizabeth Murphy, the Fairfax Symphony's executive director, "that we both got her."

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