August 2003

August 29, 2003 11:41

My friends in the now-defunct Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra have had a rough year, left with no health insurance for their families and a major source of income gone because of the dissolution of the orchestra in March. Some have even have even needed food boxes from a local charity to make it through.

And though the orchestra looks to have a strong chance of re-forming as the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, I have to wonder why this happened in the first place. From everything I've read and everyone I've talked with, it looked like the orchestra's board was either grossly negligent -- or just wanted to bust the union.

Before moving to California, I had a full contract with the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra. It was a desirable job, which is why I auditioned three times to get it. We played three concerts of every performance, all to a fairly full and appreciative house. We had health insurance through the orchestra, a major benefit for a musician here in the U.S. where there is no public health care, and having insurance is tied to your employment. We played a full season, with a few summer concerts thrown in. And the location, location, location... this city stands right at the foot of the great Pikes Peak, the mountain on which Katharine Lee Bates penned "America, the Beautiful" in 1893. Beautiful indeed!

Still, it wasn't exactly a luxurious living -- $13,000 a year. But it provided enough salary and benefits that a musician could live in the area if he or she taught or did other work.

In the year I left, 2000, the symphony's endowment was at $2.7 million, according to the Colorado Springs Independent. The organization was run by Susan Greene, an energetic director who was good at raising funds.

For reasons that mystify both the musicians and the public, Susan Greene left her post unexpectedly in Dec. 2001. Following her departure, the board hired a management company from Michigan to run the orchestra, flying in an interim executive director twice a week, according to the Independent. Management costs tripled. The board started borrowing against the symphony foundation's endowment, according to the Independent.

"There was a long period of time where the orchestra musicians were refusing to see the writing on the wall," said Lynne Glaeske, a violinist from Denver who played under contract for the former CSSO. "They just couldn't believe that the board was doing this."

Then came some missing paychecks in December 2002. The CSSO started canceling rehearsals and concerts on a weekly basis. Musicians coming to get their music Jan. 15 were greeted with a sign on the doors of the symphony office that said, "No Checks, No Music." The CSSO was placed on the international musicians' union's "unfair" list.

On Jan. 10, the CSSO filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A month later, the CSSO Association asked the bankruptcy court to reject the musicians' union contract and force the musicians to play under contract conditions desired by the board. The judge did the first part, abolishing the union contract, while rejecting the second part of the CSSO board's request as illegal. The 75-year-old orchestra, one of the 132-year-old city's elder institutions, was dead.

It's a scary story for any musician to hear; we all know what a shaky foundation any orchestra in the U.S. stands on. The good news is that the story doesn't end here.

The musicians stuck together, and in the midst of this crisis they gave several concerts to raise money for a musicians' relief fund. The community rallied around them. The first concert happened in February, when the musicians and the former CSSO conductor, Lawrence Leighton Smith, gave a free concert at Grace Episcopal Church, the place where the orchestra had held its very first concert 75 years before. About 1,000 people jammed into the church to hear the orchestra play Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Dvorak's "New World Symphony," according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Shortly after the dissolution of the orchestra in March, Susan Greene held a press conference announcing the formation of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. The new orchestra has the same music director, Smith, the same assistant music director, Thomas Wilson, and the same musicians. Greene will be its executive director, with a new board headed by Thomas Cross, a Colorado Springs attorney.

Their 2003-2004 season looks pretty full. They plan to have seven classical concerts, five pops concerts, four performances of the Nutcracker Ballet and four family concerts. Instead of three performances of each classical concert, they will have two. Still, not too shabby.

And let's just say they are trying really hard to raise money. For example, the orchestra raised $12,000 playing a 24-hour musical marathon at King Soopers, a local grocery store.

They also secured a grant larger than any grant the Colorado Springs Symphony ever did, a two-to-one challenge grant of $325,000 from four regional foundations, according to the Denver Post. That means they have to raise $650,000 in cash or pledges by an Oct. 31

The orchestra will play Beethoven Nine for its first concert of the season on Oct. 18 - that ought to bring in the masses.

The economy, so often cited as the cause of this catastrophe in Colorado Springs, is no better than it was a year ago. Yet the newly formed orchestra is leveraging grants and moving on with the next season. Why couldn't the board of the CSSO do that? Perhaps the board members in this ultra-conservative town just get tired of dealing with the musicians' union Or maybe they simply had become too dependent on Susan Greene to raise all the money and neglected to do so in her absence.

Whatever the reason, things remain difficult for the musicians, who still don't have the health insurance and other benefits provided them in their previous contract. They have fewer services to play this year. The orchestra's library, with more than 1,200 scores, was auctioned off. Musicians who were not paid after January are still struggling to make ends meet.

But they do have an orchestra, and it appears to be in good hands.

"They're fighters," Glaeske said of the Colorado Springs symphony musicians. "There are a bunch of real fighters in that group. I think they have a very good chance of making it work."

Best wishes, and have a great season, you guys.

* * *

How you can help

According to the Pikes Peak Musicians Association, AFM 154, donations to the musicians of the former Colorado Springs Symphony can be sent to:

CSSO Players Assembly
C/o Mary Anne Lemoine
1942 Essex Lane
Colorado Springs, CO 80909

The Pikes Peak Community Foundation has agreed to accept contributions for the new Colorado Springs Philharmonic until 501c.3 non-profit status can be established for the Philharmonic. Tax-deductible contributions to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic can be made immediately to:

The Colorado Springs Philharmonic/PPCF
c/o Pikes Peak Community Foundation
P.O. Box 1443
Colorado Springs, CO 80901

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August 25, 2003 15:57

Recently I was called at the last minute to play an opera in two rehearsals, "starting tonight." Someone else had ducked out at the last minute for a better gig.

I said, "no." I felt for the contractor, having to find someone under that kind of pressure, but there was no way I could have fit it into my already too-tight schedule.

I later found out that, had I said "yes," I'd have been placed in the front of the (rather small) first violins, next to a concertmaster who'd never played concertmaster for that group, right in front of a conductor who was tearing his hair out and screaming at people. In particular, at the first violins.

Sometimes "no" is a beautiful word.

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August 18, 2003 17:02

I received a newsletter from the Denver Young Artists' Orchestra the other day, and it was like getting a letter from an old friend.

The Young Artists' Orchestra, as it was named then, was the greatest solace of my adolescence. No matter how ugly, awkward, out-of-place, out-of-style or out-of-touch I felt during those days, I always knew I was part of something greater than my teenage angst: I was in the orchestra.

Granted, the YAO did serve me my first dose of rejection. I tried to get into it as a seventh-grader, and that was rather young for an orchestra that also included college students. But I wanted to be in it with all my heart. I had seen Eugene Fodor play the Tchaikovsky concerto with the YAO, and I was exhilarated: I could be in that orchestra! I could play in Boettcher Hall!

For that first audition, I played Mozart Concerto No. 3. Carl Topilow, then the conductor, was kind but dismissive. I received the rejection letter in the mail.

I spent an entire year thinking about that lost opportunity. At first, I was utterly dejected and wanted to quit playing the violin. I also wanted to burn my copy of Mozart 3. Then I decided that I wouldn't stand for it. I switched teachers. I practiced. I marked my calendar. I was determined to get in next time.

Of course, this would become the pattern of my life. Any musician must live with rejection.

With quite a bit of instruction from James Maurer, I got in the next year. At the first rehearsal with the new conductor Charles Ansbacher, we played through Brahms Symphony No. 1. What a piece to sight-read at a first rehearsal. I felt at sea, clinging to a tiny raft there in the back of the seconds, drowning in this murky piece.

It did get easier.

I was among the youngest members of the orchestra then. A much older trumpet player named Scott Wendholdt drove me to rehearsals, blasting the radio so loud that I tried to roll down the windows to let out some of the sound. He was mad at his mom, I think, for making him drive this kid to rehearsal. When I later ran into him at Indiana University, he apologized for "terrorizing" me, much to my amusement.

By the end of my five years in the orchestra, I was one of the older kids, driving the younger ones downtown every Saturday to rehearsal.

Perhaps my fondest memory was not of playing, but of driving with everyone in a big school bus to the YMCA of the Rockies for a retreat, which we had at the beginning of each year. Someone had brought a boom box, and this bus full of teenagers unanimously agreed to blast Beethoven 7 at full volume. We all listened, humming our parts, as the old bus chugged through the Rocky Mountains.

Clearly, these were my brethren.

My friends in the YAO have scattered far and wide. Trina Struble is the harpist for the Cleveland Orchestra -- go girl! Her sister, Larisa, is a violinist in the Colorado Symphony. I hear flutist Monika Vischer every morning on KUSC National Public Radio right here in LA. When I lived in Denver, I turned on the T.V. to find harpist Aimee Sporer the anchor for the Channel 4 Evening News.

An entirely new crop of talented kids is keeping the music going there in Colorado's Mile-High City. They are even going to Austria next year. I wish them all the best.

To me, we are all on that same old bus.

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August 14, 2003 23:21

I was so glad to get a gig in the middle of the summer that I forgot to ask, “What do you mean by an ‘R-33’ gig?”

Just so you guys know, it’s a Trust Fund gig. That is, a gig funded by the Music Performance Trust Fund. When you go, you sign these green sheets of paper so the union can pay you the lowest possible negotiated rate. Then several months later, a bunch of checks arrive, on different days, for about $44.33 each. There is a prevailing grumpiness surrounding these concerts, mostly because of the payment. But I do feel it’s all worth it.

The trust fund was founded in the 1940s in an agreement between the American Federation of Musicians and the recording industry, and it uses money from the sale of recordings to fund live concerts for the public.

So far this summer I’ve played two such gigs. The first was my Fourth of July job, playing the “1812 Overture,” with fireworks, in a ballpark. Thousands of people came and heard that famous Tchaikovsky overture, along with “Porgy and Bess” and other numbers from musicals.

My latest Trust Fund gig was geared towards families and children, who could come to Griffith Park in L.A., sit on their blankets, have a picnic and listen to music. Before, the conductor of the orchestra (Symphony in the Glen), Arthur B. Rubinstein, got together with about 50 kids and taught them a version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” that he had arranged for kazoos. The kids then got to play it with the orchestra -- much to their delight, their parents’ delight, and my delight, too!

The program was just perfect, I thought, because after the kazoo prelude, the rest was not gimmicks. We played the Warlock “Capriol Suite” (which comes together quite nicely if you are short on rehearsal time), and a new piece called “Dreamscapes,” composed by the conductor. It featured soprano sax and violin and had a modern yet movie-ish sound. Then we closed with the Tchaik Serenade, and who can complain about that?

Apparently the Trust Fund is the largest single sponsor of live music in the world and those concerts reach an average of 15 million people throughout the United States and Canada every year.

That’s some serious PR for us, folks. Many of those ears never hear classical music until going to one of these free concerts! So do it with a smile -- you don’t know whose life you may be changing.

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August 10, 2003 22:28

I’m beginning to feel like a big nag trying to convince a seven-year-old student that she needs to continue playing the pieces she has learned.

“Do you know what ‘rusty’ means?” I asked her today. She didn’t. I guess things don’t get rusty in Southern California. “It’s when you leave your car outside in the rain and never drive it and it gets this brown crusty stuff all over and one day you try to start it and it won’t even go.”

“Oh,” she said without changing expression.

I clearly needed to take a different tack.

“Let me explain something to you. Your fingers are just not as smart as your head is,” I said. “You can learn something in your head and remember it, but your fingers need to be reminded every single day. They are very forgetful. They are not too smart.”

She liked this better.

“My fingers are not very smart?” she asked.

“That’s right,” I told her.

“How about my toes?” she said, pointed to her little toes, sticking out of her sandals.

“Not smart.”

She continued in this vein. What about my arms? My elbow? My knees? My hair?

“Just like your fingers,” I said. “Not smart.”

She thought for a moment.

“What about my heart?” she asked, putting both of her small brown hands over her heart.

“Your heart,” I said, smiling. I wasn’t expecting that one. “Your heart is smart. It’s smart in a different way.”

“I knew it!” she said. And that was the end of our lesson.

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August 7, 2003 13:49

Life as a free-lance musician is either feast or famine, and I don’t know which is worse.

This week is feast: I have a rehearsal or concert on six nights. The logistics of this require as much attention as anything else. For example, my husband or a babysitter must be in place with my children before I can bolt out of the door. Also, I’ve needed to change nearly every one of my students’ lessons, all to times when I’d normally, say, eat, wash the dishes, wash my children’s clothes, sleep, or do any one of those pesky little tasks required for day-to-day existence.

The pesky little tasks either don’t get done, or they get done when I ought to be sleeping.

The other side of the coin will show its face, rather soon, it looks like. The calendar shows potential for the famine phenomenon in September: a big, blank page. Everything starts in October this year.

During the slow times, it’s hard not to wonder, “Am I actually a musician? If I’m playing in the living room, and there is no one there to hear it, does that make me a professional violinist?"

Even a month-long “famine” of work can make a person philosophical. Or it can cause one to make commitments that are unsustainable once the feast is back. For example, “I think I’ll take on four new students!” or “Hey, yes, of course we can play chamber music for fun every Friday from now on!” or “I think I’ll take a job at Starbucks,” or, “Why don’t I try leading the Brownie troop?”

The trick, I suppose, is to enjoy playing, then enjoy getting a break. If only I could avoid getting bogged down in the scheduling, the juggling, the stress of it all, I could enjoy the roller coaster ride of a musician’s life. It goes up, it goes down, but it never is dull.

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August 4, 2003 10:43

My daughter had an attack of stage fright last week. Her friends, all about six or seven years old, were lining up to do a dance number, but she hung back. She didn’t want to go. The teacher beckoned her. She resisted more, burying her head in my lap and gripping my skirt as if it was the only thing keeping her from falling down a mountain cliff. “I just want to run out of this room,” she told me quietly.

I could relate.

In fact, it happened to me rather recently. I hadn’t had any kind of nerve problems in years, then suddenly that Evil Demon crept up on me. I was sitting principal second for an orchestra job and had what I’ll describe as the most technically easy solo imaginable. Not a problem. Except if you are in the midst of an anxiety attack!

About a half a page before the Great Terrible Solo my heart started pounding, harder than it does when I go running. My ears started sweating – I wasn’t even aware ears could sweat! I got rather dizzy – then the thought came to mind, “I just want to run out of this room!” Not an option. Of course, I stayed and played. All the notes, in tune, in the right place, but not exactly the music I would have liked to make! Oddly, the rest of the concert was totally fine. I went on to help lead the troops through the “1812,” which is a lot trickier, without even a pang of nerves.

When my daughter was in her state of nervousness, the thought occurred to me that the situation didn’t require so much anxiety. Here she was, doing a dance she knew well, with her friends. Her audience consisted of adoring parents – her own and others. But her anxiety was every bit as real as my own.

Moreover, my situation was every bit as “trivial,” on some cosmic level, as hers. There I was, playing nice music with friends, for an audience of people assembled because they enjoy our music. Where’s the anxiety in that?

I think the only solution is to be amused. Be amused by your own anxiety and stage fright. Don’t fight it; it just happens when it happens. But don’t run out of the room!

My daughter missed out on one number but went on to join her friends and have a wonderful time for the rest of the show.

“I was sorry I missed that first dance, it was my favorite one,” she said afterwards.

“I’m proud of you,” I told her, and I genuinely meant it. It’s hard to conquer those kinds of feelings. “I’m proud you went back and did it!”

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