Musicians to the ice floes, please

If one single factor underlies the turmoil at the New Hampshire Music Festival in the minds of the musicians and the external support group SOON, it appears to be the fear that Festival management intends to replace the orchestra with another group; a NYC-based orchestra called The Knights. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the fears have a solid basis, and that The Knights are attractive to Festival management in large part because they represent a ready-to-go “new model” for orchestras.

There had already been plenty of turmoil during the 2008 season over the Festival’s future direction, leading to an organizing campaign amongst the musicians. The campaign was highly successful in getting most of the musicians to sign cards requesting AFM representation, but, for reasons apparently having to do with the Festival’s budget size and Federal law regarding coverage of orchestras under the National Labor Relations Act, did not result in a certification election under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board.

But clearly a new level of discord and distrust was achieved during the summer of 2009. It began with a memo to Festival musicians on July 1st:

Here are a couple of updates on this season as well as important information for next season, Summer 2010:

1. When you arrive you will find a packet of information in your mailbox that contains pertinent information regarding your time with the Festival this summer including the schedule, repertoire, housing information, building hours, etc.

That’ll be helpful.

2. As in the past, we will pay a mileage stipend for drivers (carpool style) roundtrip for the concerts in Gilford. A sign-up sheet for drivers will be posted for each week.

Also good. When do we eat?

3. Beginning with Summer 2010, we will change the focus of the Festival in order to create a more enriching musical experience for our Musicians and our audience. We believe that the traditional presentation of music must change. And we are not alone in this belief. As we introduce these changes, we envision that the New Hampshire Festival will be among the leaders in transforming how music is created in the 21st Century, broadening the appeal to Musicians and audience alike.


The memo went on to describe how this would be achieved:

As we currently conceive it, these changes will include:

  • Introducing a concept of “curators” — artists, composers, conductors — who will, in certain weeks of the season, work with Musicians, interpreting the theme.
  • Presenting more recitals, chamber music and broadening the use of guest artists
  • Inviting selected students into the Festival Orchestra and asking each Musician to engage in a mentoring program for those students.
  • Calling upon Musicians to participate more directly in rehearsals. We anticipate that the approach to concerts will be different: curator and/or conductor, musicians and students will work together in a more intense and longer rehearsal cycle, collaborating on how musical works will be presented.
  • More fully engaging Musicians in ensemble playing
  • Creating a variety of styles for the repertoire

That all sounds very “New Model”: precisely the kinds of things proposed in some of the various reports made about our field over the past few years, as well as the kinds of ideas implemented by Orpheus, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and, of course, The Knights. Doing away with the music director as chief conductor, using guest artists differently, having students work for free (with appropriate “mentoring,” of course), and generally trying to make an orchestra a kind of quartet writ large, all sound very like Festival management is indeed attempting to “transform how music is created in the 21st Century, broadening the appeal to Musicians and audience alike.”

The management of the NHMF clearly didn’t have a lot of confidence in the ability of their existing musicians to get on board with these ideas, but they wanted to be fair (or at least be seen to be fair), so the musicians were all invited to re-apply for their current jobs:

In order to realize our vision, we will be conducting a different approach in determining which Musicians to select for our Summer 2010 Season. It is our intent to brief you on these changes in direct discussions following our first rehearsal on Tuesday, July 7. At this meeting we will:

  • Explain how the focus of the Festival is changing
  • Describe the criteria we will establish in making the selection of Musicians going forward
  • Review the process for any Musician who is interested in participating in the Summer 2010 season
  • Take your questions and answer them as fully as we are able

We will be instituting an application procedure for Summer 2010. Your application must be submitted no later than September 30, 2009. We will review with you the application requirements and procedures. We encourage you to become familiar with this process and to ask questions. During this Summer Season, we will provide you assistance in preparing the required materials. You will be able to collaborate with your fellow Musicians in preparing your submission. Each Musician will decide whether or not to participate in this opportunity.

We expect the presentation on July 7 will provide you with information you need to decide whether to participate and what will be required of you to apply for employment for the Summer, 2010 season. You will certainly have more questions as you have had time to think through this opportunity. We will schedule additional meetings to continue the dialogue and answer your questions. We can discuss the timing of follow-up meetings at our July 7 meeting…

We look forward to our continuing dialogue.

I’ll bet they did.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

Leave a Reply