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Albany Symphony Bends Shifting Market to its Advantage

In the modern orchestral industry, there are essentially two kinds of orchestras: those whose players have salaried jobs with health benefits and vacation time, and those that operate on a “per service” arrangement, without benefits – basically, you only get paid if you play the concert. Zachary Woolf of the New York Times wrote a largely complimentary piece on the state of orchestral music making in the Upstate New York region recently, but one area where he saw instability was the possibility of this per service model becoming more the norm than not. The general rule of thumb is that salaried orchestras are better than per service orchestras, and it’s not difficult to see why. Those juicy benefits, and a boosted income means that salaried orchestras can attract a wider, better pool of applicants for their openings. When a per service orchestra holds an audition, they’re generally only drawing from applicants who live within an hour or so of their location.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra, itself a per service orchestra, has managed to buck this trend. It’s been to Carnegie Hall twice in the past three years, and won its first ever Grammy Award this year. All of this artistic achievement is due in part to the fact that the ASO tends to attract a higher caliber of applicant for its auditions than other per service orchestras. How does it do this? There are two important factors in the ASO’s success.

  1. A shortened rehearsal schedule. Whereas most orchestras rehearse for a full week prior to the concert, the ASO crams four rehearsals into the two days prior to the concert. This makes the job more attractive to players who live further away, and would have to stay overnight in Albany to make it work. A full week away from home is tough to swallow. But three days? That’s totally doable.
  2. Attendance policy. In the per service model, it’s understood that sometimes musicians will have no alternative but to miss a concert; all musicians in non salaried orchestras work in multiple orchestras, and sometimes concert schedules will conflict. What makes the Albany Symphony Orchestra unique in my experience is the extreme flexibility extended to the musicians: in order to retain your seat in the ASO, you’re only required to attend 50% of subscription concerts. This means that the ASO draws heavily on its substitute list. This is where one of the wild cards the ASO has going for it comes into play – location. Only a few hours outside of New York City and Boston, the ASO draws heavily from players in both of these culture rich centers to fill its ranks (I even know one player who comes from Montreal to play with the ASO!). This attendance policy means that the ASO acts sort of like a baseball team – it has a preferred starting lineup, but on days when somebody needs time off, it has a deep bench that it is confident in drawing from.This forgiving attendance policy also makes the orchestra more attractive for high end players – if you’re less worried about having to give up another orchestra, you’re more likely to take the audition.

To be clear, the per service model is not ideal. Musicians have to hustle more to make ends meet, which means being able to spend less time exclusively on their orchestra job, and it also entails tons of time away from family and on the road. From the perspective of the community, having absentee musicians driving in from hours away means not reaping the full benefits of having an orchestra in your city; I don’t teach in Albany, and being available for other engagements up there can be tough for me. Still, the ASO has made the per service model work to its advantage, and if this model is coming to be more the norm than the exception, than hopefully other orchestras are watching carefully.

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