Small Agile Local Symphonies Thrive on Shared Passion and Part-Timers

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July 16, 2016; Pollstar

Daniel Meyer of Pittsburgh serves as music director of the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, the Erie Philharmonic, and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina. He is one of tens of thousands of musicians making it work in the world of regional and small-town orchestras. Orchestras with budgets of $300,000 or less make up two-thirds of the 1200 orchestras in the United States. Many who conduct and play in them either have multiple gigs in various symphonies or work partly in music and partly elsewhere. Part of that talent comes from music faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, and West Virginia universities, many of these musicians will perform with various local symphonies.

But according to the League of American Orchestras, these smaller groups, unencumbered as they are by fixed costs, are thriving even as larger groups with more infrastructure to support struggle. What’s making that possible is a gig economy for professional musicians that often pays by the performance. Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Warren Davidson, who also plays first chair violin, is an assistant professor at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, and conducts widely, confirms that this deep well allows the small orchestras to thrive.

“There was a study a while back that said the number of people with music performance degrees with full-time employment was eight percent. I don’t think much has changed,” said Davidson.

But Meyer said the availability of skilled musicians is only part of the equation.

In my mind, there are a couple of factors why we survive. One is the passion and interest of the community. In Greensburg, there is a real desire for great symphonic music and a real passion for learning stringed instruments. People know what music can do for their lives and their children.

In Johnstown, where the population has declined by two-thirds since 1960 after two floods and the decline of the steel industry, the 88-year-old symphony is a point of civic pride. It brought forth a youth symphony, the Inclined to Sing choral group, and an amateur community strings group. Its new conductor, Maestro James Blachly, 36, is also the music director of the New York City–based Experiential Orchestra, music director of the Geneva Light Opera, and co-artistic director of The Dream Unfinished, a social justice orchestra.—Ruth McCambridge