Orchestra or chamber music?
I've recently realised/decided to make playing the viola in chamber music my career focus (so I go to university knowing what it is I want to do in life). My idea is to play viola in a quartet, and do solo recitals on both violin and viola. My question is this. If I do manage to get professional engagements with these, would I be missing out by not doing orchestral stuff as well?
A string quartet is a team of fine soloists, in terms of quality if not of style. The repertoire is often more intense.
Yeah, you need to be an extremely good player to keep up with the demands of quartet playing.
Adrian wrote, "a string quartet is a team of fine soloists." Yes. For me, at least, it's hard to appreciate by listening to a recording just how hard quartet playing really is. It's when you go see them in recital and see how hard they're working to make that happen that you realize, "Wow, that is not any easier than playing concertos with an orchestra." Some aspects of it are easier but other aspects are harder.
Making a living as a full-time chamber music player, unless you mean weddings, is exponentially harder than winning an orchestra job, which is brutally hard.
As Mary Ellen already pointed out, the paying opportunities for professional chamber musicians are very rare, unless you are among the elite players in a given conservatory. These positions are second only to soloist work, which, like professional sports, is a very elite game. That said, nothing hones your chops better than playing chamber music. You'll rapidly become a better orchestral musician, because in a sense, playing chamber music is like being the principal player in a orchestra. You'll learn to watch each other, listen to the ensemble and your own playing on a deep level, and you'll play some of the best music ever written.
Think about the venues where you're seen quartets play. How many seats did they sell? What were the ticket prices? Was there any sponsorship or underwriting? What kind of expenses have they? And remember -- all the profits get divided by four, and there are no fringes. I just looked at the schedule of one of my favorite quartets, The Jerusalem Quartet, and it's murder -- in March they have 12 gigs in 14 days. You can bet they would not do that if it were not necessary to make ends meet.
And that quartet is probably grateful to be getting the work, too. I think professional quartets often have fairly compressed touring schedules, though, because they often have other jobs as well -- for instance, they may be in residence at a university where they have teaching duties.
Go play/study what you love but know that making a living at is extremely difficult and, frankly, unlikely. The number of quartets who earn anything approaching a steady paycheck is tiny, and there have never been so many really fantastic young quartets in the world. But winning a seat in a professional orchestra is almost as hard -- it's almost like hitting the lottery. Just try to keep your expectations realistic. If you want to make a living as a musician, chances are you will have to do a lot of things really well and play an awful lot of music that would not be your choice to play. Even Hilary Hahn is doing youtube videos playing Paganini while hula-hooping -- that's the kind of commitment it takes to make a living at music.
Professional touring quartet members are playing at the same level as any soloist (although the skillsets and knowledge base are a bit different.) Look at their bios- they met at Julliard, they went to Coburn. They won blah blah prize...
I don't think that Hula Hoop video has any influence on Hilary Hahn's income. My guess is she just felt she couldn't say no. You don't see Anne-Sophie Mutter doing that stuff and she's got to be loaded. HH will grow out of it too one day. By then someone else will come along to perform monkeyshines with the likes of TwoSet Violin.