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Playing in the Major League

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  • | 5:00 a.m. March 5, 2014
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Baseball and orchestra are not a perfect comparison. For one, there are no baseball caps or jerseys worn to Holley Hall or the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The only score that’s kept is one written by Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. There’s no seventh-inning stretch, peanut shells littering the stadium seats or men interrupting performances with deep-bellied yelling of “Bud Light!” There are no rivalries, albeit, there are plenty of diehard fans. And the only strikeouts are the people who did not get tickets to sold out Anu Tali-directed performances this season.

But, what is cause for comparison is that Sarasota Orchestra, similar to a minor league team, is the breeding ground of up-and-coming talent in the country. For instance, at the end of January, Sarasota Orchestra’s co-principal horn player, Joe Assi, announced his new appointment as Dallas Symphony’s third horn. In the past eight years, a handful of other Sarasota Orchestra musicians have moved on to other major league orchestras.

So, what makes an orchestra major league versus minor league? A few former Sarasota Orchestra musicians who have gone on to the next tier — Toby Oft, Audrey Good, Keith Carrick, Emily Brebach and Joe Assi — all said the same thing: “The Big Five.” The Big Five is a century-old reference to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra. Although that moniker arguably still remains true, there are a few other orchestras that could be thrown in the mix, such as: Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony.

Oft, a former Sarasota Orchestra trombonist who now plays with Boston Symphony Orchestra, thinks what makes an orchestra a major leaguer has a lot to do with tradition. When he’s listening to a top orchestra, he can tell which it is because each has cultivated its own sound and style. There are a lot of factors that play into this, such as the venue, but he thinks longevity helps. Boston Symphony Orchestra has had 133 seasons; Sarasota Orchestra has had 65. So, could Sarasota Orchestra cultivate a similar tradition? Oft says we’ll see in another 65 years. He also uses the term “destination orchestras,” meaning musicians who play with this type of orchestra have reached his or her final destination — there is no next tier.

Carrick, former principal percussionist at Sarasota Orchestra who is now principal percussionist for Utah Symphony, expounds on this idea.

“In our field, you don’t work a certain position and get a promotion,” he says. “(Moving to the next tier) is eventually what a promotion is … it’s career advancement, plain and simple.”

In the majority of cases, musicians audition for a particular position (such as principal percussionist, third violin or second horn) and he or she plays in that position for the duration of their time at that orchestra.

“If you want to have the opportunity to make a bigger salary or play with a better ensemble (better being objective), you have to put yourself out and audition,” says Good.

Good now plays horn with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. She thinks having Sarasota Orchestra on her resume helped her land an audition for the Toronto organization. Good explains that even though auditions are blind according to union rules, orchestras don’t have to always accept every resume. Her’s got her through the door.

Brebach, a former Sarasota Orchestra musician, thinks Sarasota Orchestra has a good starting salary. The salary is comparable to other regional orchestras, but the most established orchestras musicians make nearly double.

Nevertheless, most of the musicians interviewed agree: Sarasota Orchestra musicians play above their pay grade. They are like the Tampa Bay Rays, a team with one of the lowest budgets in baseball that consistently makes it to the post-season playoffs.

The most obvious reason for auditioning and playing for a different orchestra is a bigger paycheck, but, for Brebach, it was also a matter of orchestra size. Brebach plays English horn for the Atlanta Symphony. At Sarasota Orchestra, she played second oboe/English horn. English horn is her niche. Only large orchestras have a seat for just English horn. The number of full-time musicians in Atlanta nearly doubles the number of full-time musicians at Sarasota Orchestra. Sarasota Orchestra employs 41 full time, and 32 part time.
Having a completely full-time orchestra would take Sarasota Orchestra to the next tier.

Pat Joslyn, who is in her 14th season with Sarasota Orchestra as vice president of operations and artistic planning, says the orchestra has steadily been adding musicians over the past 10 years. And she wants to get something straight: “I really wouldn’t want us to be looked at as a farm team because I think we’re better than that,” she says.

Joslyn believes Sarasota Orchestra can become one of the biggest players in the major league of orchestras, but says it’s up to the community’s donations. It can’t survive on ticket sales alone, and she suggests increasing the musicians’ salaries would attract even better musicians. Plus, it would also help for the orchestra to have its own large performance venue.

But, in fact, there are plenty of factors that would suggest it is becoming one of the finest regional orchestras in the country. A lot of it has to do with the recent hiring of a new music director, Anu Tali. Six of seven concerts she directed this season sold out.

Maybe minor league, AAA or farm team is not the appropriate analogy — other than the fact that Sarasota Orchestra breeds up-and-coming talent. Assi says the orchestra pays a competitive wage, especially to its principal musicians. He also thinks the talented musicians here could land any job in the country.

Assi says he will miss the familial aspect of Sarasota Orchestra and the community support. He thinks things are about to change at Sarasota Orchestra under Tali. One thing he mentioned is that he’s predicting she’ll take Sarasota Orchestra on the road. Touring is one more element of what makes an orchestra part of the major league. Joslyn agrees.

“I think she’s going to shoot us through the roof,” Joslyn says. “She will elevate the standing and level of the orchestra to incredible new places.”






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