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For love, not money
With a wave of Alexis Hauser's baton, the cacophony and clatter of instruments warming up gives way to synchronized playing.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Nearly 80 young musicians -- the McGill Symphony Orchestra -- are rehearsing for the concert version of Verdi's Falstaff. On performance night their blue jeans, sneakers and bandanas would give way to sleek black pants and shiny leather shoes. Other than funkier eyeglasses and the occasional facial piercing, there is little difference between these players and those already in professional orchestras.
Conductor Alexis Hauser, who first worked with the orchestra as a guest conductor last year, says, "I was so impressed with the students that I was really happy when I got an invitation to come here." He sees them as young professionals at the beginning of their career rather than as music students.
The orchestra's players come from diverse backgrounds, work hard, and are dedicated to making music their livelihood. Besides orchestra and other ensemble rehearsals they practice for three to seven hours a day. But it's not all serious talk of tempo and gnashing of teeth over musical phrasing. There's camaraderie, jokes, and genuine enjoyment of making music together.
Music students audition to get into the orchestra. Leonie Wall, flautist, says this is one reason why she chose McGill.
"Wind players have to audition for positions every term." Lest favouritism play a part in the selection, the students audition anonymously from behind a screen. "It's more like the real world," Wall says. "It's what you're going to get."
By the time she leaves school, she'll have gone through eight professional-level auditions, gaining valuable experience. This has already paid off -- she's now principal flute for the Orchestre de Grands Ballets de Montréal, keeping her extra busy. "We did Queen of Spades during the two weeks of midterms!"
For Wall, the flute was love at first sight. "Whenever I saw orchestras on TV, and when the camera zoomed in on the flute, I would start to cry." After considerable pestering, her Mum gave her one for her eighth birthday.
"I just love it so much! I want to be an orchestral player, playing such gorgeous music with other people. The fact that you can move people, that you can produce something that can take people away from the real world. Music has such power!" After she played a recent concert, a teacher came backstage with tears in her eyes. "It touched me so much that I could touch her."
Work prospects are tight. Professional orchestra members will keep a position for 30-40 years, just because it's so tough to get another one. Wall will audition for 2nd flute for the National Arts Centre Orchestra in January, which already has 160 top-notch players signed up to try out. "It just comes down to who happens to do a good audition that day."
David Quackenbush, french horn, admits, "It's not the kind of thing where when you graduate, you just get a job. It doesn't work like that." McGill auditions rank the students but, Quackenbush explains, "in real life there's just one position you're all competing for."
He'd love to play in an orchestra in North America, preferably in Canada. But there are only five orchestras in Canada where you can make a decent living, he says, which means maybe 25 horn positions countrywide.
There was recently an opening for 4th horn in the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. The last guy quit because he was making more money from his hot dog stand.
So why choose a career in music? "At some point you realize you don't want to stop doing this, you don't want to give it up."
Attentive Falstaff goers would have noticed a curious instrument in the back of the brass. "A cimbasso is an early tuba," Tom McCaslin explains. "It's originally an Italian instrument from Verdi's era, so all the work was composed for it." Then the tuba came along, and the cimbasso was phased out. But in the last 15 years, the revival of period music led to a cimbasso resurrection in Germany, where it's now made.
McCaslin is a tuba player from Regina, where one of the country's best tubists, John Griffiths, plays in the Regina Symphony Orchestra. On a visit to McCaslin's grade school, Griffiths urged kids to take up the tuba -- the pitch worked on this prairie lad.
The transition to cimbasso for Falstaff wasn't difficult. "Most tuba players play two or three differently keyed instruments."
His studies have taken him to Michigan and Lausanne, and he plans on attending graduate school in the States. "I really see myself as an orchestral player." He needs a big ensemble for his tastes. "I like playing Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner: the big stuff."
He's says playing music is "the hardest and the easiest thing at the same time." You can be playing so well, everything can flow: then not. "It's a constant progression." He practices at least three or four hours a day, "but if you practice for too long, your face can blow off."
He admires how "the McGill Symphony Orchestra doesn't hold itself to the students' standards." The repertoire doesn't fluctuate according to the talent -- the program stays the same because that's what the students should be learning. And yet, "it always manages to come through and sound fabulous."
John Wong hits things. All percussionists do. When he was a wee kid he would bang a spoon in restaurants, and when his dad would take it away he'd cry, making more of a ruckus than before.
University meant choosing engineering at Waterloo or music at McGill, and he figured this was his "one chance to take music. To follow my dream and see where it leads me.
"Percussion's role is traditionally to keep the beat. To add different colours, it colours the orchestration. Percussion can add a new dimension of sound."
Wong took me to the percussion room, deep in the bowels beneath Royal Victoria College far from the rehearsal space of the Strathcona Music Building. They can't rehearse next to flutes -- the noise they make would drown everything else out. These guys wear earplugs when they practice. "Percussionists seem to practice the most. We're expected to be professional on all the different instruments."
He and his percussionist buddies showed me snare drums, a gong, a multitude of marimbas and xylophones, and played a scale on the giant copper timpani. I learn triangles cost well over $100, and drummers periodically have to trim the fluff on their timpani mallets because the felt gets scruffy.
His mates agree that percussionists work the longest hours, but don't always get due consideration. They're always the first to show up for rehearsal and the last to leave because setting up takes so long. You can't just open a carrying case and whip out a timpani.
They're also under a lot of pressure. As Wong noted, "You don't not hear the triangle." Nonetheless, these guys seemed to be having a blast. After all, "what's the first instrument a kid wants to play?" one asks. "Drums!"
"I come from a small town in Transylvania," Eva Kozma, violinist, tells me. "In Romania, everyone takes music seriously."
Her father and brother play cello in the town orchestra, following the footsteps of her cellist and composer granddad. Her parents gave her a violin when she was seven; she was in concerts at age 10. Now she plays on a 300-year-old instrument that belonged to her grandmother.
A scholarship in Germany for a North Carolina music camp led to an invitation to McGill. "People in Romania just grab opportunities to travel." After a year of wrangling with visa problems, she's in the three-year licentiate on a full scholarship. "I'm so grateful and honoured to be here, and thankful for the opportunity."
Despite fears of solos and worries that she's not good enough, she says, "I realize I have a little talent and I enjoy it. Others, even if they're good, they drop it, they don't realize how lucky they are."
Matia Gotman has played the violin since he was four and a half, prompted by his big sister's playing. His neurologist parents kept him practicing for years, even when he didn't want to, and at 15 he started to enjoy playing again.
At CEGEP he took pure and applied sciences, but he saw that "the people in music looked like they were having fun," so he added music to his curriculum.
Then the decision: science or music? His sister had stopped playing when she started university, so he realized, "If I go into science, I wouldn't have time to play. I thought it'd be a shame to drop it."
He finds the violin a difficult instrument, mentally. "You can't mindlessly practice things over and over again," but instead you must concentrate and be relaxed, Zen-like.
"I just love music, I love Beethoven. I'm fascinated with taking an in-depth look at pieces, how everything goes together, why things sound like they do, how composers do what they do." He avidly reads composers' biographies. "If you know a little bit about a composer, it helps with the music. Then you get to understand the person through their music."
He struggles to separate his music from his sense of self-worth. "If you're having a bad day, you can't connect that with yourself."
Gotman, like his peers, strives for the best. "The music I hear in my head doesn't always come out on the violin -- that's the challenge!"