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Freelance Orchestras Seizing the Moment

November 15, 2011

As the traditional city orchestra model faces powerful challenges in changing times, new orchestras have been springing up over the past few years, often populated by younger, freelance performers who are paid by the gig (if at all), sometimes performing in nontraditional venues — rock clubs, churches, college auditoriums — rather than concert halls, and frequently playing nonstandard repertoire, ranging from contemporary postclassical music to pop covers.

Even though the number of chamber orchestras are fewer than alternative chamber music groups, there are plenty (too many to name all) — Boston Modern Orchestra Project, A Far Cry, The Knights, String Orchestra of New York, and a variety of large contemporary music ensembles. Together, they’re reinventing classical music in the 21st century.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Preserving Contemporary Sounds

Boston Modern OrchestraOften mentioned by today’s young orchestra entrepreneurs as the model or inspiration for their efforts, BMOP (as it’s usually known) was founded in 1996 by Gil Rose, then a young conductor looking for a sustainable model for an orchestra that could play the new and unusual music he cherished. “I was trying to make something artistically interesting and viable that not only took on the unusual repertoire, but that would also be leaner, with fewer fixed costs,” Rose says.

Unlike some alternative orchestras, BMOP emphasizes new music and recordings; it has performed works by over 100 composers, premiered and commissioned dozens of new works, and issued 39 CDs in 15 years. Two years ago, 36 composers joined forces to support the orchestra. Its 2010 release of leading contemporary composer Steven Mackey’s music just snagged three Grammy nominations.

“What I’m trying to build,” says Rose, “is a legacy of recorded material that wouldn’t otherwise be preserved,” including once-well-known composers who have been forgotten, like his current fascination, the Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Kubik.

Rose attributes BMOP’s longevity in part to its flexibility: He can muster 90 musicians, but also uses smaller aggregations when necessary. The group relies on freelancers in Boston’s fertile classical scene. “It’s probably the most active freelance community in the country,” he says, “as big as New York’s but in a city one-quarter the size.”

Rose finds that both younger musicians and younger audiences are a lot more open to new alternatives these days, but he doesn’t focus only on young listeners. “Our audience is eclectic because our music is eclectic,” Rose says; it ranges across age groups and other demographics.

“You might be seeing a changing of the guard in terms of where classical music is going.” – Jesse Irons

Younger groups have sought advice from Rose. “I should get a residual from all the groups that have imitated BMOP and put ‘project’ in their names,” he says with a laugh. “What I always tell younger kids is that a lot of these groups don’t survive 15 years because they make a fatal mistake. In the beginning, they all start as volunteers. Then they start getting condos and babies and need to make a living, so groups start to fracture and splinter. From day one, BMOP paid union scale. And we’ve done that ever since. And that involves day-to-day, hardcore pounding pavement and fund-raising. I advise them to do what they can to professionalize, even at a modest level.”

But how does a group raise money without first establishing a track record that would encourage support? “It’s chicken and egg,” Rose acknowledges. “You can’t professionalize till you get money, and you can’t get money till you professionalize. We were lucky and caught some breaks when we first started, and it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good. The only way to make it is to have a unified voice and a mission that people can identify with.”

A Far Cry: Democracy in Action

A Far CryAnother Boston group inspired by BMOP is A Far Cry, which coalesced in 2007 around a group of young string players who’d been gathering informally late at night to read through chamber music pieces, and soon found they had too many players to fit into homes anymore.

Appropriately for the city that was the cradle of American democracy, the Criers share the administrative duties of running an orchestra. “We all do nonmusical tasks and we’ve all gotten gradually better at these tasks,” violinist Jesse Irons says. “We just hired our first full-time staff person. That’s a financial advantage — not needing to pay outside support people — but the other advantage of the model is that all the musicians in A Far Cry feel more of a sense of ownership. There’s a real sense of being on a team.”

Members also all contribute to programming decisions. “Anyone who’s a member of the group can submit a program for consideration to the whole group,” Irons explains. The group favors “thematic programs with unexpected connections between works that wouldn’t traditionally go together,” he says. One concert this year involved music by composers as varied as Thomas Tallis and Steve Reich.

“Our audience is eclectic because our music is eclectic. It ranges across age groups and other demographics.” – Gil Rose

AFC’s audiences tend to be demographically diverse in their home territory of Boston, where they might play “pop-up concerts” in a local Dominican restaurant or outside a grocery store. “We try to let everyone know we’re here in the community,” says Irons. “It’s easy to forget about the biggest audience,” Irons notes — “the online audience — we have hundreds of thousands of views from all over the world on YouTube and Facebook.”

Everyone in the group freelances elsewhere or teaches or both, but “we’re quickly moving towards a living-wage model,” Irons says. “That’s definitely a goal.” AFC has a residency at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and its nearly completed new concert hall, and a European tour lies ahead.

Magik*Magik Orchestra: Rocking the Studio

Magik*Magik Orchestra founding creative director Photographed by Robyn Twomey at Tiny Telephone In 2008, San Francisco Conservatory of Music composition student Minna Choi used the school directory to email the student body to see who might be interested in forming a freelance orchestra to perform on Radiohead guitarist/composer/violist Johnny Greenwood’s fabulous BBC commission for 34 string players, called Popcorn Superhet Receiver, at Herbst Theatre. She got 30 initial responses, those musicians told their friends, and pretty soon Magik*Magik Orchestra could draw on 150 or so Bay Area musicians for everything from backing indie rockers like John Vanderslice and Death Cab for Cutie, to supplying video game soundtracks, to playing concerts of contemporary music.

Choi got the Greenwood gig because she’d asked New York alt-classical promoter Ronen Givony if he needed her to write arrangements, which she had done as a recording studio intern in New York. “The hip-hop guys would want violin on a track, but they found it difficult to communicate with classical people, who’d be rolling their eyes at the score,” she recalled. But when she got to the Conservatory, she found the students there eager to play on pop records. The Greenwood gig got her name on the list when rockers would call the Conservatory seeking classical musicians and arrangers, and soon Choi was writing arrangements and playing keyboards for a Sting concert.

Rather than promoting new music or playing classical standards, “Our main mission is to get more music makers involved in the orchestral experience in some way,” Choi explains. “Our target is indie rock and pop, and eventually hip-hop musicians. We think of ourselves as a resource — there’s not a lot of curating that goes into what we do. We function more like a recording studio.” Anyone who pays the fee can use Magik*Magik.

“If you want to write for orchestra, you should have the chance to buy the chance to work with an orchestra easily, the way you can go out and buy a piano easily.”

Magik*Magik soon became the house band at Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio on Potrero Hill, which led to further arranging and recording gigs. Choi’s friendly, down-to-earth attitude makes it easy for rockers, already intimidated by working with orchestras, to collaborate with her. Choi estimates that 80 or 90 percent of the orchestra’s gigs are backing rock bands at places like the Great American Music Hall. But the band has also played at Davies Symphony Hall, SFMOMA, the Palace of Fine Arts, and other venues.

Still, all the members, most of whom are still in their 20s, have day jobs, including the 30-year-old Choi. “We don’t depend on Magik*Magik to pay the rent,” she says. They support themselves off the checks rockers write to book them, but overhead is small: an office at Tiny Telephone, a monthly stipend for the member who handles publicity, no frills. Choi estimates the operating budget at $150,000, the annual net at about $10,000.

“Our main mission is to get more music makers involved in the orchestral experience in some way.” – Minna Choi

Rather than promoting new music or playing classical standards, “our main mission is to get more music makers involved in the orchestral experience in some way,” Choi explains. “Our target is indie rock and pop, and eventually hip-hop musicians. We think of ourselves as a resource — there’s not a lot of curating that goes into what we do. We function more like a recording studio orchestra.

“If you want to play the piano you can get your own, but if you’re a composer and you want an orchestra to play your piece you have to wait for someone to say ‘now you’re good enough for us to play your piece,’” Choi says. “It’s so absurd. If you want to write for orchestra, you should have the chance to rent an orchestra the way you’d rent a piano. Orchestras are expensive, but they don’t need to be as expensive as they have been. We make sure the orchestra store is open for anyone.”

Choi sees a trend toward younger orchestral groups trying alternative approaches. “One thing we all have in common,” she remarks, “is that there has to be a leader-ish figure who’s highly approachable, down to earth, and nice. That old attitude of music director as a pretentious, tortured artist you can’t understand — none of these groups have that. Colin Jacobsen is the nicest guy in the world.”

The Knights: Music as Serious Play

The Knights<br>Photo by Richard FrankJacobsen is the main composer for The Knights, a New York “orchestra of friends” conducted by Colin’s brother Eric, which has already played the city’s most prestigious venues (Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center) and the hippest (Le Poisson Rouge), has recorded on Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain label, became the resident orchestra at the city’s celebrated MATA Festival for emerging composers, has performed around Europe, and has worked with stars like Dawn Upshaw, Gil Shaham, Osvaldo Golijov, and Yo Yo Ma, who’s become a mentor.

The brothers set a goal of paying musicians from the outset, and have been gradually trying to increase that amount over the years. But the members earn their livings by freelancing in various orchestras, chamber groups, Broadway shows, Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and in all kinds of genres. Many are in their 20s and 30s but some are in their 60s.

The players handle the nonmusical tasks, too. “There’s as little divide between musicians and management as possible,” Colin says. “We’re not divided between the people playing the chord and the people writing the donor the thank-you note,” his brother Eric agrees.

The Knights emerged a decade ago out of a group of friends who were going to the same school and got together to play chamber music. After a couple of performances at the famed Bargemusic series, the group was able to afford rehearsal retreats for more gigs. “We didn’t set out to change the way orchestras do something,” Colin says. “We just wanted to put on concerts with our friends. We realized good things were happening and we focused on having continuity between one project and others, both financially and in terms of the big picture. We kept doing what we were doing, and people outside noticed and asked us to do more.”

“We do have a core audience,” Colin says. “As we’ve grown together, the audience and musicians and community at large are starting to trust each other more and more, so whatever we program, they say ‘This sounds like an interesting idea, let’s try it!’ Even if it’s not standard repertoire, they’re willing to try it anyway. That’s a relationship we’re trying to build on.”

As with so many of these orchestras, that repertoire is generally project driven, such as their next album of Schubert’s music as viewed through the musical lens of the minimalists. Like other musicians of their generation, the Jacobsens refuse to be limited to certain musical genres or periods. “You come from a cloistered conservatory, and you get out there in the world, and you want to play music for people of all generations, not just those older than you,” accordint to Eric Jacobsen.

They’ve also collaborated with a variety of artists. And they’ve taken their work online, including a Google-sponsored YouTube event that drew thousands of Web hits. “It showed that there are many people out there who want to hear orchestral music,” Colin says. “It’s a huge audience, and they didn’t just tune in for a few minutes but for the whole thing. There’s a whole world out there if you can reach them.”

The Big Picture

The key ingredient for sustainability anywhere seems to be musicians’ passion for the music they play. When Eric Jacobsen gave a talk on the future of American orchestras recently, a young musician approached him for advice on how to start her own. “I asked her, ‘What music do you love? What drives you?’ The great musical groups that have been around for two years or 100 years all seem to have that kind of artistic drive.”

“If you have a bunch of friends and want to put on a concert,” Colin Jacobsen says, “then do whatever it takes to put on the concert and get people to come, and if it has a good energy, you can duplicate it.” For one early festival they decided to stage in Minnesota, the members literally went door to door asking for contributions.

“People will help,” Eric insists, while not minimizing the daily difficulties of running an orchestra. “We’re constantly seeking advice and support — musically, operationally — and we would be nowhere without mentors. People helped us out so much.” And crucially, the members helped each other.

“A lot of freelance life is making others feel good about being in the room with you,” says Colin, the nicest guy in the world. “The members of the Knights help each other out so we can sound as good as we can. And the audience can sense that. You absolutely have to have a firm grounding of commitment to each other.”

But Eric also believes the various alternative orchestra approaches reflect the way musicians live. “Our group has a lot of entrepreneurial spirit, and that could be transferred anywhere,” he says. “Perhaps it’s just a generational thing. Our dad played in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He thought there was one choice: Either be a soloist or be an orchestra player. Those boundaries have blurred, just like the boundaries between pop and classical have blurred. We’ve seen many of our friends spread out around the country and find ways to make music fit in their communities.”

“I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of music,” declares A Far Cry’s Jesse Irons. “It’s silly how much doom and gloom there is in the popular press about the ‘decline of the orchestra.’ I don’t see it, and I’m there on the ground. We get amazing audiences with great reactions, including standing ovations more often than not. There are these kinds of new projects going on everywhere. You might be seeing a changing of the guard in terms of where classical music is going.”

Brett Campbell writes about music for The Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, SFCV and many other publications.