Richmond Symphony musicians play without contract

When I arrived at CenterStage for this afternoon’s Richmond Symphony concert, I was greeted by one of 4 or 5 symphony musicians who were handing out half-sheets of paper to attendees. The paper read:

Thank you for attending our performance!

We hope you enjoy the power of Mahler’s First Symphony
as much as we enjoy performing it for you.

Musicians of the Richmond Symphony want you to be aware of some important facts.

  • We are performing for you, our loyal audience, even though our contract expired on August 31, 2012.
  • RSO management is demanding a new contract that requires drastic cuts in wages, season length, and benefits.
  • RSO Musicians cannot afford to live on these cuts.

These cuts will diminish the First-Class Symphony that Richmond has and deserves.

Visit our website at for more information.

Find us on facebook at

This is distressing but not surprising, given the conflict that emerged over a $350,000 gap in the budget just before contract negotiations supposedly began in February.

I commend the musicians who supported this leafleting and who created the independent websites for their willingness to take the time to communicate their perspective. (They could have gone on strike, as Chicago Symphony musicians did on Saturday. And I suppose there’s still time for an Atlanta-style lockout… but let’s not go there now.)

On the whole, the musicians’ website is positive, with a distinct emphasis on story-telling and music. (Why can’t the Richmond Symphony website be this interesting?) The FAQ page is informative and mostly neutral; “The ‘Situation’ Corner” is the main platform for grievances with symphony management.

Here are some of the questions I’ve been turning over in my head since leaving the concert.

-According to a musicians’ press release, the Sept. 7 “final offer” from the RSO to the musicians includes an effective pay cut for full-time section musicians of nearly $4,000 (I think from reduced need for services) and cuts to benefits. What income reductions have other symphony employees had to take, if any? Are these cuts being asked of everyone in the organization at roughly the same rate?

-The page titled “Reductions in Artistic Output” (url: “artistic decline”) posits that the main artistic criteria on which a symphony orchestra should be judged is the number of large-scale “masterworks” and “pops” concerts per year: “This reduction in performances exemplifies a troublesome reduction in the vision of what the RSO should musically provide for the city.” Why this claim? Has the vision instead shifted; while these numbers have decreased, has the number of educational services (and concerts in nontraditional settings) increased? What SHOULD the Richmond Symphony musically provide to a city that apparently doesn’t want to buy enough tickets to, for example, Sunday afternoon Masterworks concerts to make the numbers work?

-Speaking of making the numbers work, what do musicians think should be done about expenses that are larger than income?  I know that it’s not the job of the musicians to come up with budgets, but I’m just curious.

(-So, a question for management… did you ask the musicians this question? If you’re willing to listen to the disturbingly stupid advice of some board members (i.e., to turn the issue into one involving state legislation), I hope you’re willing to listen to musicians’ ideas, even if they don’t seem workable at first.)

Although I’m discouraged that contract negotiations didn’t result in some kind of agreement by August 31, and I know that what comes next might well be an indefinite number of months without concerts (as has happened and is happening at a large handful of orchestras across the country), and what comes after that could well be a smaller symphony and even shorter “season,” I still bought subscription tickets to 4 concerts this year. Because none of the above changes the fact that this is the music I want to hear in the city where I live.


Orchestras and Unemployment

House Bill 1254, which would have prevented symphony musicians from receiving unemployment benefits “between successive orchestra seasons,” has been dropped for now. My Style Weekly commentary piece on the issue hit stands the same day as the legislative continuance.

Contract negotiations between the union and the symphony organization, of course, are still in full swing. Adaptistration, a blog by arts consultant Drew McManus, has extensive coverage of the legislative issue, the board’s letter to musicians, the conflict it engendered, and the prospects for contract negotiations.

There’s a lot of confusion about where unemployment benefits come from and how they affect employers. This is understandable, because it’s a confusing system, and slightly different from state to state. I don’t have all the information myself, but I know the biggest misconception is that taxes are taken out of employees’ paychecks to fund unemployment benefits. This is not true. Employers pay into the system.

Many people also don’t know–as I didn’t, until two weeks ago–that the rate at which employers pay unemployment taxes is based on unemployment claims filed by their former employees over the past four years. Employers who have more claims pay a higher tax rate –this is meant as incentive for employers to avoid layoffs. So the stakes for employers involve not just dollars paid out in claims but the amount they pay into the system.

If I’ve mischaracterized this, please let me know.

However, an equally pervasive misconception seems to be that orchestras inherently have “seasons.” This is not true. If an orchestra doesn’t perform concerts or contract musicians during the summer (or any time), it isn’t because music can’t be performed in the summer, it is because the orchestral organization has chosen not to use its resources to create performance and education opportunities during the summer.

Somewhere Between Late and Never (Concerts from August-November 2011)

I started teaching last July as a part- to full-time adjunct, which devastated my already lousy record as a blogger, but at least I did make it to some concerts. Let me pull out a stack of programs and try be snappy before the semester flexes its muscles.

Julien Quentin

August 19. Julien Quentin, piano, at Bargemusic. Lera Auerbach, “10 Dreams”; Beethoven, “Pathetique”; Liszt, “Mephisto Waltz”; and Quentin, Improvisations and “DetroitRemix.”

I’m not naturally a piano fan, so it takes a lot to impress me, and this concert didn’t.  The second half of the program wrapped Quentin’s work around “Für Alina” by Arvo Pärt and then slipped into the Liszt, which might have worked if his initial Improvisation had been a little more distinctive and his remix piece presented with more confidence and less twiddling with computer controls (and less cheesy electronic percussion). It also would have been nice to have heard from Quentin himself about his plan for the second half, for two reasons: (1) The Barge is an intimate space. It’s kind of weird for a solo musician to not talk to the audience. (2) People like it when they know what to expect. Yes, I speak for myself, but I am confident that this is true for others.

Bela Bartok

September 17. Richmond Symphony with Elena Urioste, violin; Steven Smith conducting. Beethoven, “Leonore Overture”; Brahms’ Concerto in D; Stucky, “Dreamwaltzes”; Bartok “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite.

The Bartok was great: tantalizing and abrasive with soloists who played in character. Judging by the strength of the applause, however, most in the audience tolerated it rather than enjoyed it. Urioste got resounding applause for her performance, which was very good but sometimes not as full-bodied as it should have been. I liked “Dreamwaltzes.”

September 25. Richmond Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Randolph-Macon College; Erin Freeman conducting. Kernis, “Musica Celestis”; Bach, “Mass in F”; Mendelssohn, “Italian” Symphony

This was my first time in this space, which is smaller than I thought it would be, and not acoustically exciting, but certainly functional. It was also my first time hearing the chamber chorus of the RS Chorus. (I understand that it has been several seasons since a chamber chorus was used.) It was satisfying to hear this beautiful music performed by a smaller choir.

Aaron jay Kernis

The program began with “Musica Celestis,” a gorgeous piece for string orchestra that invites comparisons with Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” because we humans are hardwired to compare the unfamiliar to the familiar.  Well, okay–they’re both written for string orchestra and are both slow-ish.

Barber’s work, though, is so much more body-oriented than the Kernis. The “Adagio” is driven forward by quarter notes that you can walk or breathe to, but “Musica Celestis” is very celestial, out-of-body music, with phrases that don’t fit into natural breath or heartbeat rhythms. The RSO strings gave a lovely shimmery impression.  Later in the piece, there’s more movement, I suppose like the flashing of meteors. I closed my eyes to listen to the changing textures passed among the sections of the orchestra. The Mendelssohn, last on the program, was an emphatically in-body experience.

(l-r) Brock, Kennedy, Wigton

October 4. Zach Brock and The Magic Number at The Camel.

A fortunate tip from a Baltimore friend sent me at the last minute to this show, and now I owe her. One could be reasonably apprehensive that a program of jazz violin would turn into interminable minutes of aimless indistinguishable peaks and troughs of sound, but not from these musicians. Brock is clearly a talented violinist and composer, but I was at least as impressed by the work of bassist Matt Wigton and drummer Fred Kennedy. Together, the three handled tonal and rhythmic changes like a Houdini. You could get their album if you like this sort of music, but if you don’t, I still think you’d like their live show. It was too bad that pretty much the entire audience for the opening act (a local band) cleared out before The Magic Number came on. Their penalty for being rude was missing a great show.

Brooklyn Rider

October 8. Brooklyn Rider, string quartet, at VCU. Mozart, “Quartet no. 8”; Brooklyn Rider, “Seven Steps”‘ Glass, “Quartet No. 3”; Zorn, “Kol Nidre”; Beethoven, “Quartet No. 14”

Brooklyn Rider has a sound that I’d like to describe as shivering with sonic excitement, but you have to promise me you won’t misunderstand that to mean they have a cold sound or they only play well fast. This was an outstanding concert that got better as it went along, ending with a totally alive performance of the Beethoven. I think “Seven Steps,” a collaborative composition that included extensive improvisatory sections, will also get better with time; there were some moments in the music when forward momentum seemed to be thwarted without much concurrent payoff in reflective depth. Oh, yes: From now on I want all string quartets to perform standing up, except for the cello, whose chair was on a conductor’s platform.

October 23. Richmond Symphony Orchestra with Diana Cohen, violin at Randolph-Macon College. This concert was on the same day as the Richmond Philharmonic’s fall concert (in which I played), so I didn’t go, but here’s my article about new RSO concertmaster Diana Cohen, who performed Mozart’s Concerto no. 3.

October 29. Aeolus Quartet, string quartet, at Richmond Main Public Library. Dvorak, “American” quartet; Theofanidis, “Ariel Ascending”

I’m embarrassed to say that I remember almost nothing about this short, free concert presented by the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia. I arrived late, rushing Child2 from tap dance class, and sat in the back with her on my lap. I couldn’t see past her ponytails, but since she wasn’t restless, I think it was a good concert.

JACK Quartet (Photo Stephen Poff)

November 5. The JACK Quartet,string quartet, at Strathmore. Glass, “Quartet No. 5”; Wolfe, “Dig Deep”; Caleb Burhans, “Contritus”; Ives, “Quartet No. 2”

A  fascinating program by a masterful quartet. I was impressed by the personality they gave the Glass. The friend I sat next to loved “Dig Deep.” I thought it was about 80% boring. “Contritus” manipulated my emotions, and I loved it. The Ives quartet, which is maybe music’s most intellectual flipping of the bird,  was played with clear-eyed love.

Brooklyn Rider: The desirability of imperfection in the fallen-angel sense, not the can’t-play-presto sense

Photo by Sarah Small

Violinists should never be trusted to do the laundry.

My article about the string quartet Brooklyn Rider appears in this week’s Style Weekly. Cellist Eric Jacobsen, whom I interviewed by phone, said much more about honesty and truth and the exchange between performers and audience, but it was unfit for print. That is, I can only put so much abstraction and unverifiable theory into one article before my head starts floating away (after the heads of most readers).

Brooklyn Rider's name is a reference to the German artists' group Der Blaue Reiter. From Wikipedia: "Within the group, artistic approaches and aims varied from artist to artist; however, the artists shared a common desire to express spiritual truths through their art."

The thing is, when he says that people in the audience can tell when musicians are not being “honest,” I think I know what he means on a gut level, but I feel required to analyze what “honest” means in this context. When he says that musicians shouldn’t try to be perfect, I also think I know what he means, even before he interrupts himself to explain that he’s not talking about technical imperfection. I guess the problem is that when I write for publication, I have to write with my head, not with my gut.

In any case, based on my own experience, I think musicians are more often “honest” than not. And if your standard for honesty is reality TV, well then, you’ll be fine.

Possibly, audience members are less likely to be honest. Are you going to the Richmond Symphony because you want to, or because you think you should? Did you get your ticket for Esperanza Spaulding at the Modlin Center because you like her music or because she’s being marketed at just the right level of hipness you can handle? Are you at this NoBS Brass Band show because you love dirty jazz or because you want to be pressed on all sides by dirty and/or groovy and/or cute guys and/or girls? (Both reasons and more, you say? Oh, okay. Anything’s better than staying home and watching  TV.)

Visit for streaming full works, not just samples. That’s the truth. I dare you.



Cello a la carte

So I have to admit I was disappointed to find out that Matt Haimovitz’s free flash concert is scheduled for 11:30, Monday, Oct. 3, in the University of Richmond dining hall.  If UR is paying for this extra appearance, I guess they can put him wherever they want, but Haimovitz has the reputation of playing in nontraditional places.  I was hoping for Carytown or somewhere more interesting than a college campus.

Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley present a full concert at 7:30 p.m. that evening in UR’s Modlin Center. More here.


Rennolds Concerts add valet parking

I consider myself visionary to have been able to afford to buy a house 13 years ago in a neighborhood celebrated for its on-street car repair . Housing prices have gone way up because after we moved in, partly because the location is so awesome.

I love being able to walk to concerts at VCU, because parking around there is a real aggravation. (I suppose people can use the VCU parking decks–for how much $, I don’t know–but the very uncertainty of whether or not they’re open to the public, and whether you’ll be able to get your car out when a concert’s over at 10 p.m., is off-putting.)

So it was nice to notice that the Rennolds series is now offering valet parking. Because there’s no mention of cost, I presume it’s free–although tip! your valet–but  you do have to reserve in advance to use this service.

P.S. I have not been paid by the Fan District parking squad to promote this news.

What’s in the cards for the new Atlantic Chamber Ensemble?

Will Richmond dig the new Atlantic Chamber Ensemble?

When I got the press release announcing the formation of the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble (read my article in Style Weekly), my first thought was, “It’s about flippin’ time!” Beyond the locked-to-format Summer Interlude players, the low-profile Oberon Quartet and some even lower-profile ensembles that mostly play private gigs, Richmond’s professional classical musicians have been surprisingly inert when it comes to chamber music.

Sure, they have plenty of good excuses–most are already stitching together a crazy-quilt of multiple orchestra jobs, university jobs, and private studios; the younger musicians don’t want to commit to Richmond, and  the older ones have time-consuming kids; audiences are limited, aren’t they?

(We’ll see about that one. Should the Rennolds Series and the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia be worried? I don’t think so, unless the idea of having to work slightly harder and more imaginatively to attract audiences is worrisome.)

The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble will not get rich.

In any case, it makes me feel good to think that the 11 members of ACE decided to just go for it. During our interview, I asked Susanna Klein and Ross Monroe Winter if ACE was sustainable, particularly given that they’re all quite busy otherwise and aren’t earning any money from this endeavor. Klein acknowledged they are still discussing some of the structural questions–as a self-governing body, how are decisions made?–but both agreed that sharing the performance and administrative burdens among 11 members will make life manageable.

“It’s sustainable artistically because this is something you’re hungry for…. something you want to do, you’re playing what you want to play,” said Klein, comparing chamber music to working in an orchestra. “I think that hunger is innate.”

“We’ve all played chamber music at summer festivals, where the infrastructure is already in place,” said Winter. “This is more rewarding because we have to build it ourselves.”

ACE’s first concert is in VCU’s Singleton Center this coming Monday and features all dead composers. At least one acquaintance of mine has expressed the feeling that this isn’t much of a splash from an ensemble that wants to be seen as “going against the grain”–a line from its press release. I’m willing to wait and see. (Winter was very pleased with the fact that the group’s acronym can be used in a tagline about nobody knowing what’s up their sleeve for the next event.)

Their emphasis, at least this time, seems to be on presenting a new experience, rather than new music in new places. (New for Richmond, at least.) Ultimately, I think this is a far more effective way of changing people’s attitudes toward “classical music” than playing a 21st-century composer in a walk in-bow-play-bow-walk out kind of way. But it’s true–if you’re not getting new people in the door of a stodgy concert hall, you can’t change their attitudes.

Here’s what I have to say to ACE:

  • Espresso machines ruin, RUE-IN music.  Don’t play in coffee shops unless they have a separate area for music.

    The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble may play in places that serve alcohol.

  • Try Balliceaux. They have a good room set-up for classical music and good audiences.
  • Maymont. All over. A progressive music concert: a trio in the goat pen, a duet in the herb garden, the Trout Quintet, duh, in the Nature Center. I wonder if it would work to put a quartet on the tram. Klein did say that you’re calling yourselves a “musical mobile artists’ colony.”
  • Do something with the Podium Foundation. Small: play at an issue launch party that combines words and music. Large: a residency that gets the students involved in creating and performing music themselves.
  • I haven’t been to Dogtown Dance Studios yet, but if you played there, I’d try to go.
  • Oh yeah, don’t play all your concerts on Monday nights. Several amateur music ensembles have rehearsals on Mondays. We want to see you, but we can’t skip rehearsal, ’cause we’re musicians.
  • If you’re trying to appeal to new audiences, hour-long concerts are good, but I think the more important point is to not play pieces that are longer than about 10 minutes each, especially if you’re playing in non-traditional venues. More than that, it’s a lot of new music to absorb. Sucks for Brahms, but I think that’s the way it is.

    If the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble plays in a hospital, you would be close to help if you go into cardiac arrest during the concert.