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November 9, 2006

Field Report: The Pensacola Symphony

Although I have heard many American orchestras in concert (probably somewhere between 80 and 100 - someday I need to sit down and actually calculate the number), it is rare that I have the opportunity to hear one of the country's smaller orchestras over a time span that might demonstrate the presence or lack of artistic growth. That happened to me last weekend when I visited the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra.

I last heard the Pensacola Symphony about twelve years ago (before its current music director, Peter Rubardt, had assumed that position). What I heard last Saturday night was a hugely improved ensemble, an orchestra with a high degree of polish and technical achievement, as well as the ability to play with conviction, color, and intensity over a wide-ranging program including Smetana's The Moldau, Sibelius' Violin Concerto (Karen Gomyo was the superb soloist), Rautawaara's Isle of Bliss (a lovely, post-romantic tone poem that even the most conservative audience would enjoy), and Debussy's La mer. That last was the test - La mer requires an orchestra to play with great attention to intonation (or the wonderful colors become muddy), with delicacy, and with a sense that the musicians are listening to each other. It was the range of color and dynamics, particularly in the Rautawaara and Debussy, that took one by surprise. You don't expect a thoroughly satisfying performance of a work as difficult as La mer from an orchestra in a small community - and when you find it you are once again reminded that the quality of music making in the United States is at a much higher level than most people believe.

One lovely feature of the concert was a post-concert talk held by the music director and soloist, with me as a guest. It was held in a room off the balcony - about 50 people attended. The highlight was a 12-year-old girl, who was attending her first-ever symphony concert, and who was a string student in a program run by the Orchestra. She was totally captivated by the concert, wanted to absorb everything she could from the soloist and from the conductor, and she asked the most questions of anyone in the room. For her, it seemed to me, this whole evening was possibly a life-changing event.

This is also an orchestra which, while of course not without occasional tensions, is operating with a balanced budget, a wonderful sense of camaraderie among music director, staff, Board, volunteer Guild, and musicians. There is a culture of community pride and spirit in the organization - a sense that they just might have something special and their job is to nurture it. In fact, in a ninety-minute lunch that I had with the musicians, without management in the room, we discussed a wide range of topics, including governance, fund raising, audience development, and setting an institutional vision, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.

An interesting note: when I asked the musicians in Pensacola to raise their hand if they played in more than one orchestra, virtually every hand went up. I remember a few years ago meeting with the orchestra committee in Harrisburg, PA, and most of the members of that committee played in 4-6 different orchestras. This phenomenon is of course not unique to these two metropolitan areas, but it is a reality for many of the orchestral musicians in our midst. I think it might surprise people to learn that though it can be tough to piece together a living this way, a great many of the musicians who play in multiple, smaller orchestras do enjoy the opportunity to make music for a variety of different organizations in different communities, as the musicians in Pensacola seem to.

How are we going to get across to the American public that the news story of American orchestras is not one of crisis and/or financial trouble - but in fact one of astonishing quality?

To hear a performance of La mer in Pensacola, or to hear a recording (as I just did) of a performance of Mahler's First Symphony from the Traverse Symphony Orchestra in Traverse City, Michigan, and in both to experience music-making that someone with 43 years of professionally listening to classical music can find a gratifying experience, is to bear witness to the remarkably good quality of what is happening in our orchestras.

Posted by hfogel at November 9, 2006 10:26 AM

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Hardly ever do I visit the Arts Journal website and see posts about an organization somewhat close to home--so seeing the Pensacola Symphony mentioned in your blog made me very excited. I haven't paid much attention to the activity over there (I live an hours drive west of Pensacola in Mobile) but now I'm definitely curious about their orchestra, maybe I'll get a chance to see them someday.

Posted by: Ariel at November 9, 2006 6:41 PM

I have played in the Harrisburg symphony, among several others and I did not find the "joy" you describe. The only reason I can see doing such a ridiculous schedule of 5-6 different ensembles is to make ends meet while practicing for a bigger, full time orchestra job that pays a living wage. Nobody I knew at my conservatory EVER aspired to be a "gig" player in several little orchestras. I have experienced enough slopping through pops and half-hearted masterwork concerts in Harrisburg, Delaware, Annapolis, Maryland, and Lancaster orchestras to know what I'm talking about. And how you associate the fact that gig players like this who don't receive benefits or health insurance and get paid late on a regular basis are living an existence that is merely "tough to get by" is beyond me.

Did you ever bother to ask any of those players if they could chose, would they rather live this gig existence or have a full-time job that is artistically fulfilling and pays a living wage? Did you ask them how artistically satisfying it is to not receive health insurance? Did you ask them how gratifying it is to spend all those extra hours away from their family because they have to "drive for dollars"? Or did you draw your conclusions based only on the questions you wanted to ask. Have you tried doing this for a living? Please, the next time you think about speaking on behalf of musicians or postulating on what we find satisfying, don't.

Posted by: emiller at November 10, 2006 2:20 PM

I understand the points made by Ms. Miller - and I certainly was not attempting to speak "on behalf of musicians." I was observing comments and attitudes directly expressed to me by some musicians whom I have recently encountered. What I observed among those musicians surprised me to some degree precisely because of the points you made - and if my remarks were taken to imply "all" musicians of a certain category, I apologize. It's a very complex subject, and I wasn't trying to over-simplify it.

Posted by: Henry Fogel at November 11, 2006 10:35 AM

Whether you agree with him or not - and I usually do! - I think it is GREAT to read a blog about orchestra management on ArtsJournal.com written by someone who has actually managed orchestras.

Posted by: Larry Fried at November 15, 2006 9:28 PM