Last month, Charleston Symphony Orchestra musicians got their last paychecks — at least until the organization resumes operations. In March, the executive board took the drastic measure of dropping the remainder of its season to rethink its existence. That left the core musicians wondering what their future would hold.
Apart from the occasional burst of optimism, a shaky future is nothing new for anyone who works in the arts. In an era when no job is entirely secure, what hope is there for a provider of a nonessential item like music?
Some musicians have found what they believe to be the answer. They find their own work and build their own careers. That means they have to be extra versatile, from playing multiple instruments to marketing and starting their own groups.
Some orchestras support these musicians more than others. The CSO insists on adhering to a traditional model of public funding, which means that when donations run out ... there's no more season.
This is not a new story. In 2002, the Savannah Symphony closed down due to lack of cash. The nonprofit Savannah Choral Society filled part of the gap, performing in small venues until demand was great enough for the establishment of a Savannah Philharmonic Corporation. In the two years since this company was established, it has flourished, although its production budget is small.
The big difference between Charleston and Savannah: The former relies on a 36-strong core group of regular musicians, while the latter hires on a per-service basis. The play-and-pay system suits a lot of players who work with several different orchestras.
Violinist/pianist Robbi Kenney plays for both orchestras. She feels that although Savannah's model works well for them, with an orchestra initially organized by the chorus, "it probably wouldn't work in Charleston." She adds, "People aren't as open-minded, and the choir are treated like second-class citizens here."
Kenney moves from one area to another in her efforts to make a living doing what she loves. That means she's not too proud to perform or direct musical theater, cabaret, and small concerts in between her big orchestral gigs. "Artists can be self-empowered," she believes, "to produce, collaborate, and market ourselves across state lines."
Either these strolling minstrels are desperate or they really love Savannah, because some of them are prepared to travel from afar to play with the Philharmonic. "People are willing to fly," says Savannah Operations Manager Mary Catherine Mousourakis. "We have an oboe player who will fly in from Wilmington, Ind., a violinist from Virginia, and another player moving to Norfolk, Va."
The musicians have to pay for their flights, but otherwise they're well looked after. Pay is $115 for each two-and-a-half hours of service instead of the union rate of about $85. Road mileage is covered, as is accommodation. In return, the visiting artists work their asses off. "They put pressure on you to perform well, look good, be nice to the patrons," Kenney says. "If you don't, you won't survive."
The Savannah Philharmonic understands the importance of presenting high-quality concerts, pleasantly surprising audiences with great production values and a charismatic conductor in the form of Peter Shannon. Despite years of setbacks, the orchestra is pumped with optimism. Shannon saw enough potential in the hardworking, determined Choral Society to take on the mantle of artistic director and help build it into a modest but much-loved musical organization.
Shannon's heartfelt respect for the musicians, along with tremendous support from the community, is what helps the Philharmonic survive. And on the nights they perform, bringing the music to life, the musicians don't worry about where their next paycheck is coming from.