One measure of the San Diego Symphony’s rate of recovery has been its ability to attract new players to its depleted roster. After the financial and labor problems that destroyed the 1986-87 season, the orchestra suffered loss of key personnel and reputation. In spite of this shaky track record, not to mention the orchestra’s low starting annual salary of $22,125, last spring’s auditions brought a transfusion of fresh musical talent into the organization.
When guest conductor Leopold Hager gives the downbeat to tonight’s symphony concert, which opens the orchestra’s second season back on the job, first-nighters will note six new players, including three new first-chair players, on the Symphony Hall stage. Although four principal chairs are still vacant, each has been filled with an acting principal from within the symphony ranks.
In recent interviews with these new players, a profile of this new breed of musician emerged. For the most part, they are under 30, have few family responsibilities, and accept the instability of American orchestras in the 1980s as a fact of musical life.
“It’s something we all have to deal with in the orchestra field,” said John Wilds, new second trumpet, who came here from Mississippi’s Jackson Symphony. He noted that the Jackson Symphony had experienced a 44-day lockout before he joined them last season.
“When I was playing in Mississippi, the management there regarded San Diego as a success story--that they had their act together again,” said Wilds.
Section violist Thomas Morgan came to San Diego from the Tulsa Philharmonic, another orchestra that had experienced labor and financial problems.
“I entered Tulsa right after their strike ended, but it seems much healthier here,” Morgan observed. “Everyone seems to have recovered from the emotional strain of the lockout. In Tulsa, there was still a lot of tension and resentment between the players and management.”
Other new players such as principal trombone Heather Buchman and French horn Doug Hall joined the local orchestra to escape the insecurity of free-lance careers. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Hall was a regular freeway flyer.
“I was ready for a regular job,” said Hall. “As a free-lancer in San Francisco, I was driving a lot to make a living. I played with the Monterey and the Santa Cruz Symphonies; then I would drive up to play with Sacramento. Before it went under, I played with Oakland as a substitute.
“I tried out for the San Diego Symphony four times--its horn section is one of the best in the country,” Hall said. “I knew that they had been out of work and that they had had problems with (former music director David) Atherton, but that they were looking forward to a season in the black.”
New principal cellist Eric Kim took the San Diego Symphony audition seriously because his former teacher, Lynn Harrell, had been named the orchestra’s music adviser.
“I knew that the orchestra was fine under Atherton. But when I heard that Harrell would be artistic adviser, that was a major draw for me,” said Kim. The 24-year-old Juilliard graduate will miss opening-night festivities here, however. He played his New York City solo recital debut at Merkin Hall this week.
Kim left his post as the Denver Symphony’s acting principal cello just in time. By moving to San Diego, Kim missed the recent troubles in Denver, where the orchestra was out of work the first three weeks of the new season.
“I had no idea last season of the problems with their board, although Denver Symphony players grumbled about a 20% pay cut they had taken two years earlier,” said Kim.
All the new players interviewed seemed cautiously optimistic about the San Diego Symphony’s future.
“I’d heard that the symphony was pretty much back on its feet,” said new principal trumpet Calvin Price, who played much of the orchestra’s summer season at Hospitality Point. “I also heard that it was moving forward, which I’ve found to be true. Personally, I would like to make the orchestra a little more of a cultural presence. I get the feeling from the public that they are still a little wary of us.”
“A lot of people don’t even know that the orchestra is back,” said Wilds, echoing a lament of both symphony regulars and the management.
Although some of the newcomers have only begun rehearsing with the symphony, they perceive the players’ morale as primarily upbeat.
“There is a sense of community here that really surprised me,” Wilds said. “I’ve been in some orchestras where the players could not stand to be in the same room with each other.”
“I guess you have to go through trouble to understand one another better,” Kim added. “But I think the state of morale is a bit of a toss-up. Half of the people are still down because of the lockout, while the other half are optimistic about management’s rebuild.”
If the new players are uneasy about any facet of the orchestra’s state, it is the absence of a music director and the difficulties of enduring a season of guest conductors who are potential candidates for the vacant post.
“A guest conductor trying out wants to get along and doesn’t want to make demands,” Morgan said. “He wants to get the job and have everybody to like him--he’s not going to come in and kick butt.”
“The only thing we need,” said Price, “is someone to give us that fine-tuning up front for an extended period of time.”
Before moving to San Diego, Price played principal trumpet four years with the Opera Orchestra in Turin, Italy, where guest conductors ruled the podium.
“We had a different conductor every two weeks, although we had some very fine visiting conductors. But, since they were there only two weeks, it wasn’t good for the orchestra. There wasn’t enough nit-picking, enough attention paid to detail, intonation, and other stylistic things,” Price said.