We hear a lot about classical musicians fleeing traditional orchestras, running off to create serious new music with living composers. So what are we to make of a successful alt-classical musician who decides to return to the mother ship?
That’s the case of Matt Albert, violinist in one of the more successful contemporary ensembles on the scene, eighth blackbird. He’s looking for an old-fashioned orchestra job.
“I have always loved Brahms, Mozart, Sibelius,” he says. “I have never had the chance to pursue those as a professional.”
Founded in 1996 by a group of students at Oberlin Conservatory, this sextet has become a cornerstone of the contemporary music scene. It is playing at the Library of Congress Friday night in which Albert will play the world premiere of a piece by Stephen Hartke.
But next season, instead of touring and coaching chamber ensembles at the University of Richmond and the University of Chicago (eighth blackbird has residencies at both), Albert will be taking orchestra auditions, looking for string quartet jobs and doing pickup work as he can find it — pursuing exactly the freelance career many musicians are eager to escape.
“I just want to find new ways of loving what I’m doing,” he says, adding, “I want to be differently inspired now.”
Yvonne Lam, another violinist, is going in the opposite direction.
Though she held degrees from some of the most prestigious music institutions in the world — Curtis and Juilliard — she had a hard time establishing a chamber group when she began making her way as a young professional. “I got to the point where I thought, I have to get a job now, I have to support myself,” she says. She was lucky; her first orchestral job out of the gate was the post of assistant concertmaster at the Washington National Opera Orchestra, where she has been playing for the last three years.
Lam won’t be at the eighth blackbird concert on Friday, because she’s playing in WNO’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” at the Kennedy Center Opera House. But at the end of the season, she’s leaving the orchestra — to take Albert’s slot in eighth blackbird.
“You can’t get farther away,” she laughs, about the difference between playing French and Italian opera in an orchestra pit, hidden from the eyes of the audience, and playing contemporary music with a small ensemble, center stage — not to mention being on the road with the ensemble 180 to 190 nights a year.
“I think it’s a funny coincidence with me and Matt,” she says. “A lot of people have said to me jokingly, ‘Too bad you guys can’t just switch.’ ”
Lam and Albert illustrate different sides of the musician’s perennial problem: how to construct a fulfilling life as an artist while paying your bills. Conventional wisdom has it that an orchestra is constricting: You make steady money but sacrifice your artistic autonomy, and are stuck playing the music of the past. Now that alternative groups like eighth blackbird are coming of age, though, Albert’s step shows a different way to interpret the situation: Any career spent doing one thing can feel restrictive after a while. “Conductors,” Albert points out, “don’t stick with orchestras longer than 12 or 15 years.”
Colin Jacobsen, another gifted violinist, counters burnout by playing in many different groups: Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the chamber orchestra The Knights, which has recorded Mozart, Copland and Shostakovich. None is a full-time job; “that keeps it refreshed in its way,” he says. But keeping different things afloat requires its own kind of energy.
“Yo-Yo’s always asking each one of us, ‘What is your five-year plan?’ ” Jacobsen says. “It’s very much about balance: finding balance between different projects, energy to push them all forward, and still having some room for spontaneity, improvisation in one’s life — “Oh, I could go do this weird thing that’s happening this weekend.”
Not everyone is able to keep so many balls in the air at once. Still, it’s a luxury to have, as Albert does, the autonomy to make a choice about your future path rather than simply be at the mercy of what’s available to you. Now that Albert has taken a few orchestral auditions, he’s realizing the difference. “It’s been a comfortable living for a while,” he says. “When you’re running around and doing sub work, it will be different. I know how to cook,” he jokes. “I can eat in.”
Lam’s path is a better illustration of how wholly unexpected opportunities can change the picture. “If you asked me four years ago,” she says, “I would never have imagined myself here,” in an opera orchestra in Washington. “And if you’d asked me at the beginning of this year, I would never have imagined joining eighth blackbird.”
Her audition was instigated by the composer Jennifer Higdon, a Curtis connection, who sent Lam an e-mail asking her if she might be interested. From a list of 30 or 40 potential players, Lam was one of seven the group brought in for intense, three-hour auditions. Learning the choreography to some of their more staged works was a particular hurdle.
“For me, it was new and quite challenging,” she says. “But the audition was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in an audition situation.”
Now that she’s in, she waxes lyrical about the repertory. “I probably won’t love everything,” she says. “But the challenge is to play everything as if you love it. I think one of their mottos is, Play it like it’s Brahms. I have always approached new music that way. You have to try harder; it’s a foreign language in the classical music world. It can sound like gibberish if you don’t enunciate.”
Moving from a traditional career to eighth blackbird is, these days, the Cinderella story you expect. Albert’s direction remains more surprising. “The group does so many different things,” he admits. “It’s hard to describe to people that you can get tired of something when that something is almost anything.” But he feels that he’ll be immune from the complaints of some orchestra musicians. “They don’t like not having control over their lives and musical choices,” he observes. As a 15-year veteran of the planning side, the fundraising, the business end of the picture, he may welcome less responsibility, and a chance to focus entirely on the music.
Might he simply take Lam’s job? “It did occur to me,” says the violinist, whose parents still live in his home town of Winchester. “I haven’t seen the posting for the audition. But I’ll keep my eye out.”