They are among the finest musicians in the nation, artists whose worth is not measured in dollars. But perhaps that will change.
By BILL DURYEA
Published November 30, 2003
[Times photos: Jen Sens]
Dee Moses, principal bassist for the Florida Orchestra, leaves the stage after a recent practice.
Moses practices at home before a concert that evening. Were playing better now than we were even at the end of last season, he says. Were in playoff form.
Ilicia Rowe and bassist Dee Moses play together during a lesson at his home, an essential supplement to his income. Rowe, 24, transferred from a Georgia college to the University of South Florida so she could study with Moses. Dee seemed to be the most out-of-the-box thinker, she said.
Moses and his wife, modern dancer Elsa Valbuena, have lunch together at home in Tampa. Their decor suggests creativity and unconventional beauty, such as their kitchen table, wrapped in metal hammered into place by Valbuena.
The orchestra opens a concert in November with Stravinskys Symphony of Psalms. The players uniform dress belies the remarkable diversity of the group.
TAMPA - Last spring, the 80 members of the Florida Orchestra heard the first rumblings of another financial crisis.
Money woes were nothing new to this orchestra, which since its creation in 1968 had made losing money part of its artistic repertoire. At various times, musicians got paychecks that were half what they were owed, or less. During the boom of the '90s, as the rest of the world went on a spending spree with its stock windfalls, the orchestra fell in and out of debt.
But this time, talk of a $1-million shortfall took the musicians by surprise.
Season ticket renewals were rising, and a young and highly regarded music director had been hired and would open his first season in the fall. The orchestra seemed poised for a breakthrough.
That optimism faded quickly in May when musicians were called to a meeting by their union leadership. That was when they were told, "Management wants to explore the option of reopening the contract." A large bequest had covered the previous year's shortfall and provided a surplus, but the red ink had returned.
The musicians had been looking forward to their first raises in several years. Now it was looking as if they'd have to take a pay cut. There was anger and dismay. And more than a little fear, too.
Only days before, the Florida Philharmonic on the southeast coast had folded. Many of the bay area's musicians had friends there who were suddenly scrounging for work - and not finding it. Orchestras had closed in Savannah, Ga., and Tulsa, Okla. Houston's had gone on strike in March, and the one in Charlotte, N.C., had struck the previous fall.
"I woke up a lot in the middle of the night," says Dee Moses, 51, the orchestra's principal bassist. "I didn't know what I was going to do. If the orchestra folded, could I jump quickly into something else? Well, no."
Negotiations dragged on through the summer. There was talk of cutting the size of the orchestra by as many as 15 members. Some board members reasoned that they couldn't tell the difference in sound between 20 violins and 10, so why spend the extra money?
In August, the musicians received secret ballots in the mail asking them to approve or reject a 16 percent pay cut, the equivalent of five weeks of salary.
"I voted for it. What was I going to do?" Moses says. "It was August; the season was starting in a month."
The final vote was "as close as it could be," according to a union official. The new one-year contract trimmed the season from 36 to 31 weeks, dropping the minimum salary to $23,800.
For Moses, who as a principal makes more than the minimum, the cut still meant a loss of roughly $5,000. After 28 years with the orchestra, his salary was just over $30,000 for 31 weeks' work. Not long after the vote, he called a friend in Washington, D.C.
"I'm in a tight spot," he told his friend. "I need to sell my bass."
* * *
Something that people say of the double bass is how difficult it is to "make it speak." The strings are much thicker than a violin's, so getting them to vibrate clearly and musically takes the right touch. But people also say that once the strings are talking, the bass conveys a unique visceral warmth.
Moses shares some of his instrument's slow-to-speak, quick-to-charm qualities. He is a little guarded, but more out of modesty than suspicion. His baritone voice is good for sarcastic wisecracks. But it is capable of blunt emotional force, too.
"Other than burying my father," he says, "the hardest thing I've ever done was taking the bass I'd had for 28 years to the airport and putting it in a shipping trunk."
He had owned the instrument, which was made in Germany in 1826, for as long as he had been a professional musician. He hoped to get $30,000 for it, two-thirds of which would go toward buying another instrument. If he was lucky, $10,000 would be profit. In the meantime, he would play on his backup bass, itself worth $20,000.
That the best bass player in the largest orchestra within 460 miles of Tampa would feel the need to raise cash by selling an instrument he had cherished his entire career says something not altogether flattering about what it takes to be an artist in this culture.
Moses and his fellow musicians are among the finest in the country. They trained at the most exclusive conservatories: Juilliard, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the New England Conservatory. To win their jobs here, they had to beat out dozens of other exceptional talents. They perform at a level that reviewers, visiting soloists and guest conductors praise as the equal of better-known orchestras.
And yet their salary ranks toward the bottom of the country's 50 largest ensembles. They earn now exactly what they did a decade ago. It's hard to think of another profession in which the disconnect is as great between the level of skill and the level of compensation.
And yet the musicians voted to take the pay cut.
To play rather than quit.
Every person in the Florida Orchestra has experienced some variation of this moment:
Sometime in grade school, usually around fourth grade, they were summoned by a music instructor into a room full of instruments: gleaming horns curved in a golden snarl of tubes, violins the color of pure clover honey, slender tubes of ebony enlaced with silver keys. They were encouraged to hold the instruments, coax a sound out and choose.
For Dee Moses, this moment arrived in Hickory, N.C., a mountain town known for textile mills and NASCAR drivers. He was 11 years old.
"The school had just started a band program in the fall. They knew I could read music a little and I was tall for my age, so they asked me to play the bass.
"I said no because it would have interfered with basketball season," he says. "As it turned out, they didn't have a bass for me to play anyway. One day after the season was over, I get a call to go to the principal's office.
"I didn't know why. I hadn't done anything wrong, but you never know. The principal said, "We just got a bass in.'
"I had this immediate physical, mental, spiritual attraction to it," he says. "It was a Mittenwald from Germany, light honey brown. I can remember the smell of the varnish. I loved the size of it. Everything about it. I loved the smell of the bow rosin, that mix of pine and wax."
He was marked for life.
In the summer of 1964, his family moved to Charlotte, where his parents had jobs as teachers. He kept playing the bass in the school band. Soon he was winning scholarships to play over the summer.
This being the late '60s, he played electric guitar in local bands, too. "At one time we were known as the loudest band in Charlotte," he says. (His hearing is sensitive enough today that he keeps a pair of earplugs tucked in between the strings of his bass in case the brass section really cuts loose.)
In 1968, just before 11th grade, Moses surprised his parents with a request to enroll in the North Carolina School of the Arts, an experimental program 80 miles away in Winston-Salem that would enable him to study classical music as intensely as any other subject.
"They were mortified and thrilled at the same time," Moses says. "They didn't know anything about music training. They had always wanted me to go into teaching like them."
His taste for the counterculture ebbed when he heard Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. The complexity of the music mixed with the primitive nature of the instruments appealed to him. "You're rubbing horsehair on what used to be sheep gut (strings) on a wooden box and making these extraordinary sounds. It was almost surreal." He was happier in the counter-counterculture. When he was admitted to the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of the handful of premier conservatories in the country, Moses knew "there was no turning back."
"I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else."
This choice to focus so intensively on music, to play all day, all semester, all summer, for years, meant that he could not hedge his bets with a fallback career. There simply was no time.
In Cleveland, Moses' primary teacher was the principal bassist of the Cleveland Orchestra, already established as one of the best in the world. There were, at most, five other bass students in the school, so the instruction was intense and the practicing (six to eight hours a day) even more so.
"On Saturdays my teacher would call me up and tell me to meet him at the regional airport," Moses says. "He was a pilot. We'd fly to Toledo or someplace, and while we were flying he'd quiz me about pieces, he'd sing parts - "What's that?' We'd talk about professional ethics, and when we were back on the ground we'd have a Red Baron burger and I'd go home to practice."
There was no question about where this was all leading.
"We were all going to be professional musicians," Moses says. "There was nothing else."
But when he graduated with a performance degree in 1975, the national economy was just emerging from a two-year recession, reeling from the oil embargo and runaway inflation. Besides, there have always been fewer jobs than qualified musicians. Harold Van Schaik, the bass trombonist of the Florida Orchestra, points out that 150 people a year graduate with performance degrees in trombone.
"You're lucky if there is one job open a year," he says. "Mathematically it's easier to get a job as a quarterback on an NFL team than as a trombonist in an orchestra."
Love you, lose the bass
When Moses was taking auditions, the job market for musicians was already tightening for other reasons. Orchestras had begun to adopt contracts that had the effect of protecting players from the sudden furies of maestros, some of whom thought nothing of firing a player in the middle of a rehearsal. Security begat stability and low turnover.
Conductors were no longer allowed to simply call up the musicians they knew and ask for their best students. The old-boy network was replaced by an audition system, which is fairer but no less ruthless.
Players perform behind screens to ensure that judges do not allow biases about gender or race to creep into their decisions. Still, players take extra precautions to mask their identities. Women never wear high heels, which might tap conspicuously as they walk onstage. Wind players worry that the judges can detect their sex by how deep a breath they take.
The auditions in the early rounds never last longer than 10 minutes. Judges reserve the right to disqualify a player for "not meeting the highest professional standards," so a missed note in the second minute can mean an abrupt exit. Many string players take small doses of Inderal, a beta blocker that suppresses the jitteriness caused by too much adrenaline.
Even the ones who don't make an obvious error rarely know why they didn't make it into the semifinals. They have practiced hundreds of hours and paid hundreds of dollars for air fare and hotel, but they never receive anything more instructive than "Thank you."
Moses' audition for the principal position at the Florida Orchestra had certain hallmarks of the old style. There was no screen separating him from Irwin Hoffman, the notoriously imperious conductor. He auditioned for 45 minutes straight, playing whatever Hoffman demanded.
"We want you," they told him. "But can you get another bass?"
Of course, he told them. "I had no idea how I was going to pay for it," Moses says. In the end, his grandmother lent him most of the $1,900 he needed to buy an 1826 Joseph Riegger.
The Florida Gulf Coast Symphony (as it was known then) played a 10-week season. Moses earned $4,400. Before taxes.
Still, he was a professional, and he was grateful for that.
"I knew there weren't enough jobs for all of us."
Requiem and renewal
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, notes ricochet around the inside of the Mahaffey Theater like jump shots before an NBA game. Players are warming up, a cheerful chaos of scales and snippets of the pieces on that week's program.
During a practice, it's easier to see something that is hidden when the musicians are dressed in the formality of their performance night attire. This is a remarkably diverse group. Unlike a sports team, they don't resemble each other. They are not an elite subgroup of society.
Their ages represent the full spectrum of the working world. The concertmaster hasn't been alive as long as two of the French horn players have been performing. Physically, they are just as varied. One of the largest men in the orchestra plays the double bass. So does one of the more modestly sized women.
There is no equivalent of "rock star hair," some flamboyant personal flourish to distinguish them in a crowd. The notion of "orchestra star" contradicts a fundamental notion of playing in a large ensemble. Somebody once called orchestral music "the most diplomatic of all human activity."
Even the principal players, who are called upon for occasional solos, spend most of their time melding their sound with their section. The section, in turn, must dedicate itself to the larger objectives of the whole. The players must be precise, closer to perfect than not, and they can never expect individual acclaim for accomplishing that goal.
"You have to have an ego to do an audition, to get onstage," Moses says, "but as a section player, you have to be willing to subjugate your ego to the collective will. I want my eight section players to sound like one 50-foot-tall bass."
That harmony has been achieved slowly over decades. The average tenure in the orchestra is 17 years. And somehow the players have managed to stave off the staleness that can come from doing the same job for so long. Many members say they feel reinvigorated because the quality of the music they are producing is as high as it has ever been - and still improving.
"We're playing better now than we were even at the end of last season," Moses says. "We're in playoff form."
This comes during a season in which the program for every performance includes a full-page reminder from the Florida Orchestra Musicians Association that the "symphony season has been made possible through salary and pension reductions of over $750,000."
The reason for this esprit de corps walks into the rehearsal at the Mahaffey wearing a fashionably untucked short-sleeve shirt and smiling as if he could imagine no place he'd rather be at that moment.
In May 2002, Stefan Sanderling, the 39-year-old son of famous Leningrad Philharmonic conductor Kurt Sanderling, was hired to replace Jahja Ling, who had led the orchestra for 14 years. He did not begin his first season until September, but he has been impressing and improving the orchestra for the better part of two years now.
Two of the orchestra's best performances of recent years were conducted by Sanderling: Sibelius' Second Symphony toward the end of last season and Brahms' Fourth Symphony in March 2002. One reviewer raved that the latter concert might have been the best treatment of Brahms the orchestra had ever delivered. Two months later, Sanderling was named the new music director.
He is a musician's conductor. At the end of a concert, he steps off the podium to stand amid the players as they take a bow. The players took note, too, when his first public statement concerned getting them more money.
Crossing the stage before the recent rehearsal, he pauses at the bass section to rest his hand on Moses' back and chat about that week's program: two choral pieces, Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. He tells Moses how excited he had been the night before as he rehearsed alone with the Tampa Bay Master Chorale.
Over the next hour and a half, he takes the orchestra through the Stravinsky, joking with the players about the unique arrangement of no violins, violas or clarinets ("No one has ever explained to me why no clarinets") and riding them on points as fine as the softness of a sixteenth note.
"I know I torture you, but it's still not perfect the third bar after 1," he says. "Let's all push on that note. Keep the tension."
Later, "It's still not absolutely perfect, but we will get it. Let's not get fast."
Later, "It's not enough pizzicato in the double bass before 8. It's a wonderful place to add vibrato."
Moses takes that opportunity to ask about the "general dynamic" of a passage.
"It's loud," Sanderling answers, "but can I be honest? You've got this already."
Satisfied, he ends the practice early. Two hours later, the players will return for another three-hour session.
Fridays with Mr. Moses
"Can you push through this note?"
The next morning, Moses is seated on a stool in his living room, demonstrating a bowing technique to Ilicia Rowe, a University of South Florida music major, who is seated next to him, her bow poised over the strings of her own bass.
"I learned how to speak this last night at rehearsal from Stefan," he says to her, as they both begin a passage in a piece by conductor and bass virtuoso Serge Koussevitzky. "If you push through the note for the long haul, it gives you continuity. Yeah."
The plaster walls and wood floors do nice things to the sound. Moses' cat Moonie lies a few feet from the instruments. The room is mostly bare, but the small decorations - a pre-Columbian ceramic bowl, a woven American Indian dish and a hand-painted silk drapeau on the wall - give an impression that the people who live here admire unconventional beauty.
Moses has been giving lessons to college and high school students since he arrived in 1975. Lessons are a staple of any professional musician's supplemental income, as common as collecting unemployment checks during the offseason. But the $50 an hour Moses earns has never been more important than since he married modern dancer Elsa Valbuena five years ago and assumed responsibility for Josianne, Valbuena's daughter from a previous marriage.
That first year, he had to pay $7,000 to get health insurance for his wife and stepdaughter, because the orchestra's policy does not cover dependents. Instruments, yes. Blood relatives, no. (They have found a much more affordable policy since then.)
No one in the orchestra is starving, and they never expected to make their fortune in this profession. But the orchestra's persistent financial insecurity has forced many of the musicians to develop moneymaking sidelines. One bassist has acquired 25 rental properties in St. Petersburg. Another member of the section is trying to launch a coffee-roasting business.
Rowe, 24, has been a student of Moses for three years. She has been playing various stringed instruments since she was 10. She has played in orchestras of varying sizes and skill levels for much of the time since then. Three years ago, she decided she needed a better teacher if she was to get any better. She transferred from Valdosta State in Georgia to study under Moses.
"My dad was adamantly against my moving here," she says. "It meant I was even more committed to this than he thought. We didn't speak for six months.
"Now he's proud of the fact I'm pursuing what I want, but he'd prefer I do computer sales, or something."
"We're a dime a dozen down here'
These are a few of the things that frighten an orchestra musician even more than a pay cut:
Focal distonia. It's a muscular affliction common among musicians who repeat the same motion for hours a day. Say you're a trumpet player, and one day you can't make your second finger wiggle to create a trilled note. It's something you learned in your first year of lessons. It's essential to playing your instrument properly, and suddenly you cannot do it any longer. You think your career is over.
"Suddenly something you have done all your life is gone," says Harold Van Schaik, the orchestra's bass trombone player.
This raises the specter of a lifetime of playing Pachelbel's Canon at weddings, or gigs as the strolling violin player at fancy parties on Bayshore Boulevard, playing the theme to Titanic while guests chat about what a victory that afternoon did for the Seminoles' bowl chances.
Maybe the worst fear of all is that your orchestra could fold.
Which is what happened in May in Fort Lauderdale. Susan Moyer played cello and earned $40,000 a year after a decade there. This year, scrambling for freelance recording work or jobs with small ensembles, she says she will be lucky to make half that.
"This market is flooded with people looking for work," says Moyer, 35. "We're a dime a dozen."
With very few orchestra jobs available, many musicians have had to abandon music altogether. They've become drug reps and financial consultants and court bailiffs, and they're not all unhappy to put the perennial financial anxiety behind them. But they'd probably all rather still be playing in an orchestra.
"It's pitiful what they're getting paid," Moyer says of the Florida Orchestra, "but they're working."
Days of wrath, nights of joy
On Friday night, having rehearsed Mozart and Stravinsky for about 12 hours over three days, men in white tie and tails and women in black dresses begin to file through the stage door of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Wheeling his backup bass in front of him (the Riegger still hasn't sold), Moses is the first to arrive. He's the same way at airports.
"Everything's a downbeat," he says, his hand bouncing delicately in midair. "You've got to be right there on the downbeat."
In the cavernous backstage of Carol Morsani Hall, the oboe players are soaking finicky reeds on their tongues. A cello player turns his $95,000 instrument to the wall to catch the sound resonating back at him as he tunes. The horn players ease their perpetually chapped upper lips into the cold metal of the mouthpiece and coax out the mournful sound of a faraway hunt.
It is a difficult proposition to measure the worth of art, especially something as fleeting as a musical performance. But there are cities far smaller than New York where the symphony's musicians are treated as cultural treasures and it's reflected in their pay.
The Indianapolis orchestra performs 52 weeks a year and pays its musicians a minimum of $70,200. The Kansas City Symphony in Missouri, which this year marked its 21st consecutive season in the black, avoided reopening its musicians' contract with a late-season fundraising push. Cleveland, which has a population of 480,000, has an orchestra considered one of the top five in the world. The city lets everyone know that with a billboard that says: "Welcome to Cleveland. Home of the World Famous Cleveland Orchestra." Musicians' minimum pay is $96,460 a year, with 10 weeks vacation.
"To be funded is to be valued in this society," says James Wilson, the Florida Orchestra's principal French horn player. "As it is now, there is an argument to be made that we're only partially funded, ergo only partially valued."
So what is fair compensation?
"We'd be happy to make what Hillsborough schoolteachers are making," says Lowell Adams, 51, assistant principal cellist. Roughly $35,000 a year, which is where the orchestra was to be in 2005 before the contract was scrapped.
How many people with master's degrees and 20 years' experience in their fields do you hear saying that?
"It's not about paying what they're worth," says Leonard Stone, the orchestra's executive director. "It's about paying what we can."
That may well change soon.
When the players agreed to the pay cut, they did so on the condition that the board of directors undertake a massive campaign to build an endowment that would ensure the long-term financial health of the orchestra. The rule of thumb for endowments is at least three times the size of the annual budget. The Florida Orchestra's budget is about $7.5-million.
"This orchestra would be far more comfortable if it had a $40-million endowment," Stone says. "Right now its endowment is $7-million. There's a long way to go."
The contract specified a 60-day time limit for the board of directors to start a campaign and secure a donation significant enough to launch a full-blown public effort. That deadline passed Nov. 8, and the board told the union that it had made significant progress on the campaign, indicating that the initial gift was nearly in hand. Convinced of the board's good faith, the union agreed not to file a grievance.
"They accomplished more in 60 days than in the past 15 years," says Van Schaik, the musicians' union representative. "This is definitely an effort that is something other than lip service."
At the tip of the bow
They play nearly the whole night at the tip of the bow, taking a back seat to the chorus and the solo singers who are the stars of the Requiem. Even in the most energetic passages, the Dies Irae (Days of Wrath), for example, the four basses have to resist the urge to show off. It is the triumph of musicianship over ego, and by the end Moses is flushed with satisfaction.
As the audience cheers the chorus and the four soloists, Moses turns to his section onstage and applauds quietly. Backstage he tells one of the bassists, "Great job staying out of the way and still making some music."
Several nights later, at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, the orchestra performs the Requiem for the last time. Ilicia Rowe is in the audience to see her teacher and mentor play.
"I want to do what he does," she says.
Last week, when the orchestra closed down temporarily for Thanksgiving, many of the musicians filed for unemployment benefits. The checks are roughly $275.
If you go
The Florida Orchestra performs a variety of concerts, from the Masterworks series to casual "Blue Jeans" events and even educational events for local schoolchildren.
Associate Conductor Susan Haig will lead the orchestra in a Coffee Concert at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The program is titled "Water Music" and features pieces by Handel, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Liadov, Mancini and Britten on that theme.
The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge in New Port Richey and at 11 a.m. Dec. 12 in Ferguson Hall at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa.
Call the Florida Orchestra Ticket Center at (813) 286-2403 or toll-free at 1-800-662-7286.