“It’s like being in a time warp,” I exclaim.
I’m chatting with a well-coiffed group during intermission of the opening concert of the Caramoor Festival as we mutually admire the many familiar faces on stage. It’s the 38th such opening for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at this prestigious venue. Is it possible that it’s been that many years?
What is it about their unique style of play that I so fancy; much in common with the
UConn Women’s Basketball team (which I also admire). There’s a sharing of the music and exquisite teamwork (ensemble). Individualistic voices dominate when required and then magically withdraw into the background. Everyone listens to one another, ever so intently;, inner-voices flow in and out throughout the sections. Leaders lead, followers follow, soloists are never covered, adding up to an air of intense concentration and seriousness (noted by the Times back in ’84).
I can’t help but feel a sense of pride, yes, even ownership. Westview’s publisher, George, and I did indeed found the group at the delicious chapel at Hudson and Grove back in 1974.
Through trial and error over the following decade (which mostly involved getting the right bodies into the right seats), developed the sound and style that still gives so much satisfaction.
Yet there is an ominous side to this delight. I scan the stage and virtually every face is familiar. The group I observe is identical to the one that was in place when I left in 1995; indeed it is hardly changed from a decade earlier. Examining the roster in the festival program gives a snapshot of this season’s current personnel. Of the 94 names, only 20 were not in place when I left; that’s 17 seasons ago. We are aging in parallel.
When the Ensemble emerged in 1974, the instrumentalists were all in there early to mid-20s (there might have been one 30 year old). From the beginning, it was an extraordinary bunch, to highlight just a few: Lucy Stoltzman (who left much too soon), Naoko Tanaka, Eriko Sato, a bevy of extraordinary fiddle players, Stephen Taylor, oboist extraordinaire and I recall with pride and fondness an early morning performance of a Haydn Opera for children in which two, future principal hornists of the Metropolitan Opera, Joe Anderer and Julie Landsman, comprised the section.
Were they as good then as they are now…probably? The sounds of Steve and Lucy in the Bach Double are forever etched in my memory. Their youthful fingers and lips were perhaps more dexterous than today, yet certainly the wisdom and experience of their present state brings some advantages. Let me go firmly on the record: I am not in the least concerned that this group will ever lapse into thoughtless routine; impossible! This orchestra never tires of playing; every performance brings something new. What was true in 25 years ago is equally applicable today:
“The musicians, indeed, seemed beside themselves with eagerness, as if this concert were less a professional obligation than a privilege.” (NYT, 1986)
So, what is my concern? Twofold. I despair of the lack of opportunity for the 20-somethings just now graduating from Juilliard, Curtis, Manhattan and Mannes. They are every bit as gifted as the youthful artists we engaged. Yet because of tenure rules based on city-wide union contracts, they rarely, if ever get the opportunity to play in a local group. Furthermore, its not just St. Luke’s, it’s the American Symphony, Orpheus, the American Composer’s Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic et al. Virtually all the seats are held by performers of the same age group. Don’t they ever retire? “Horizontally,” the Executive Director of one of these orchestras quipped. “I’ve gone to four funerals of members, this year.”
For many of the performers, that life has been anything but a get-rich-quick scheme. They are forever jockeying their schedules to fit rehearsals and performances for the two or three orchestras of which they are members, chamber music groups, teaching, Broadway shows… There used to be classical recordings (no more) and a lucrative “jingle” business.
These days, there is much less of everything and what used to be a reasonable living is now severely cramped. The final insult is the distressed condition of the Musicians Pension Fund, which has found it necessary to reduce payments by 75%. Hardly anyone can comfortably retire.
So in a decade, if you see the same, much older, yet familiar faces trying like heck to crank out the performance of a lifetime at Caramoor or Carnegie, have a bit of sympathy for their plight and worry more about the younger generations that we are losing.