“Amateur Professionals”: Igniting the Classics With Fire and Intensity
By George Gelles
The traditional performing arts of drama, dance and music enjoyed a golden age of philanthropic interest in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was the Ford Foundation’s enlightened involvement that burnished the era.
Every endeavor needs a visionary, and Mac Lowry—W. McNeil Lowry to those who didn’t know him well, Mac to everyone else—paired a genius for sensing excellence with a deep commitment for finding avenues to bring these arts to an ever wider audience.
Since the days of the Foundation’s involvement, championed by Mac, the field of concert music has changed significantly. Symphony orchestras, which benefited most from foundation largesse, from Ford, Rockefeller and a host of smaller philanthropies, have given up ground, financially and artistically, that was won in earlier decades. (Aspects of this issue were discussed in “The New American Orchestras: Engines of Fresh Energy, Ideas” in The LAFF Society newsletter’s Spring 2019 issue.)
A complimentary development is the increasing excellence of many non-professional orchestras. We used to call them “community orchestras”, but increasingly that description doesn’t fit. These are a new sort of entity, ensembles whose members are professionally trained non-professionals.
Music made by and for amateurs has been with us since the days of the Founding Fathers. In an informative article published online by the National Endowment for the Arts, Ann Meier Baker, the NEA’s Director of Music and Opera, reminds us that music and our nation’s story have been entwined since the country’s founding.
Religious observances often put music to the fore. Colonial congregations resounded with hymns found in the Bay Psalm Book, published in Boston in 1712, and singing schools were established in 1717, the first steps towards institutionalized music education in the new land. As the population moved out from New England, musical expression grew more diverse, with German Moravians, for example, bringing wind band traditions with them as they settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Thomas Jefferson, statesman, politician and polymath, was an accomplished amateur violinist. He once declared that music is “the passion of my soul”, and at his Monticello home our third President hosted performers who introduced American audiences to compositions by Corelli, Vivaldi, Haydn and other old-world masters.
The first professional orchestra on our shores was the Germania Orchestra, an aggregation of some two dozen Berlin musicians who, possibly motivated by the European political unrest in the mid-19th century, left Germany en masse. From 1848 to 1850, they toured the Eastern seaboard, with the majority eventually settling in Philadelphia. These musicians, and those they tutored, are acknowledged as the core of what, in 1900, became the Philadelphia Orchestra.
As significant as the establishment of professional orchestras in the country, so too was the establishment of community orchestras whose members were non-professionals. The NEA’s Baker cites the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest as among the first of these groups.
Religion, again, was an impulse. The Symphony evolved from its beginning as a “Sunday School Orchestra” at a church in Oak Park, Ill. “By 1933,” according to a history of the ensemble, “the fledgling orchestra had grown in size and begun to perform major works from the symphonic repertory.” Now an octogenarian ensemble, it’s performing them still.
Baker names several other community orchestras. Among the oldest is the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra, founded in 1935, and the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra, a businessmen’s orchestra founded in 1944.
Though there is likely to be a similar orchestra near each reader of this article, there is no comprehensive roster of such ensembles, but we can state with some confidence that community orchestras today are better than those of yesterday.
One likely reason is the availability of conservatory-trained musicians who fail to find work as professional musicians, or who broaden their skills and choose satisfying work in other fields while continuing to hone their musical skills.
The competitive nature of the profession is staggering: according to the College Music Society, as of 2015 there were 1,795 institutions of higher learning throughout the United States that granted degrees in music. And, as reported in a study undertaken at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, “The supply of aspiring symphony musicians is huge. Between July 2005 and June 2006, for example, music schools in the United States graduated 3,671 students who majored in performance on a symphonic instrument.
“Even this figure,” the report continues, “underestimates the new supply of potential symphony orchestra musicians, as it does not count performance graduates from music ‘departments’ in colleges and universities that do not specialize in music. While some graduates may move directly into symphony orchestra positions, most teach and accept a variety of other performance opportunities.… The number of annual vacancies is very small—about one or two per year at top orchestras—relative to the annual number of music performance graduates.”
This snapshot of the field is sobering, but it does not significantly acknowledge the number of trained musicians who freely and consciously opt out of the business of performance to pursue satisfying careers elsewhere. Amateur orchestras are a preeminent outlet for creativity, and the presence in these ensembles of trained musicians, and their artistic sensibilities, have transformed community orchestras—not all of them, but a significant handful—into a new sort of ensemble.
The language hasn’t caught up with the reality of their existence. They are not amateur aggregations that mix those more trained with those less tutored. More typical is the Danbury Music Center, which has been serving its corner of Connecticut since 1935, and whose orchestra welcomes “persons of a wide variety of musical backgrounds (who) are encouraged to study and perform classical and modern compositions to improve their musical ability…”.
More selective than the traditional community orchestra and frankly less polished and precise than the finest professional orchestras, these hybrids exemplify the idea, and the ideals, of “amateur professionalism”, or “professional amateurism”, which is defined as “a blurring of the distinction between professional and amateur within any endeavor or attainable skill that could be labelled professional in fields such as writing, computer programming, music or film.” Charles Leadbeater, British social scientist and management guru, propounded the notion in his book The Pro-Am Revolution (2004) and since then the term has gained traction.
I am a member of such an orchestra. Founded in 2016, the Vicente Chamber Orchestra, based in Santa Monica, Calif., takes pride in its ties to the community, in its welcoming presentations—no concert hall stuffiness here—in its substantial programs, and most of all in its musicians, groomed to high standards in their instruments but now active in a wide range of professions.
For example, there is Ingrid, a violinist and radiologist; Larry, a violinist and lawyer; Jakub, also a violinist and a professor of economics; Caroline, a cellist and librarian for NASA; Cordis, a cellist as well who works in the casino industry; Tom, another cellist and an erstwhile rock musician who now works for a private equity firm; Lisa, a clarinetist and pathologist; and I, a French horn player. Our conductor, Zain, an accomplished violist, established, and still runs, a technology company that facilitates communications among politicians and their constituents.
Though elusive to conventional definition, the Vicente Chamber Orchestra, and others like it, represents a convergence of the professional and the amateur. If you visualize a Venn diagram, the circles, Pro and Am, have begun to overlap increasingly.
Should you link to our performances of the “Coriolan” overture, part of an all-Beethoven concert presented this past October in the Broad Stage in Santa Monica—you’ll notice an absence of the spit and polish on which major orchestras pride themselves. But the absence of this sheen, to my ears, is more than made up for by the players’ energy and commitment, by a sense of presence and passion, that our major orchestras, truth be told, can often lack.
If the Venn diagram’s circles continue to merge, we perhaps can foresee a day when hybrid orchestras perform with a greater sonic brilliance, and when professional orchestras imbue their playing with the fire and intensity that our orchestra regularly offers.
George Gelles worked in the Ford Foundation’s Office of the Arts from 1977 to 1981 and writes frequently on music and dance.