Encore (and more) performances

Sacramento’s classical musicians are part of a ‘Freeway hilharmonic’ that spends as much time commuting to jobs as rehearsing movements—which brings a whole new meaning to ‘fifth symphony.’ Here’s their story.

Clarinetist Sandra McPherson smiles, then heads off to rehearse a Gaetano Donizetti opera, then heads off to teach, then to another rehearsal. Rinse. Repeat. So goes the life of a freelance classical musician.

Clarinetist Sandra McPherson smiles, then heads off to rehearse a Gaetano Donizetti opera, then heads off to teach, then to another rehearsal. Rinse. Repeat. So goes the life of a freelance classical musician.

Photo By Anne Stokes

On a chilly fall morning, Sandra McPherson lugs her instruments into downtown’s Community Center Theater to rehearse the Sacramento Opera’s rendition of The Elixir of Love, the Gaetano Donizetti story of a farm laborer’s unrequited affection for his boss’s daughter.

Tomorrow, she will do something completely different. McPherson, principal clarinet player in the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, doesn’t have a “typical” day.

The most “typical” part of McPherson’s career: She juggles multiple jobs at once, which mirrors the experience of the majority of professional musicians in the United States, who struggle to eke out a living.

Here in Sacramento, these freelancers jokingly, and a bit cynically, call themselves “The Freeway Philharmonic,” because they spend so much time in their cars driving from gig to gig.

On most days, McPherson rises early and holds private music lessons at her house in the foothill town of Penryn. She teaches clarinet, piano and flute to 14 students, some in college, others who are just beginning their musical journeys.

She’s also part of the American River College faculty and has taught at UC Davis.

Some evenings, McPherson teaches the Sacramento Youth Symphony; on different nights, she’s out past 10 p.m. rehearsing with one of the many orchestras she performs with (she frequently substitutes for the Modesto, Stockton, Napa Valley and Merced symphonies, and the Fresno Philharmonic, in addition to her position here in Sacramento). She’s also a member of a professional quintet, which holds concerts for children. When it’s all said and done, she’ll perform several dozen concerts a year.

“In today’s climate, that’s how you piece together a career,” McPherson says.

Freelance musicians play in as many orchestras as they can. They perform in choral societies, Broadway plays and at weddings, too. Some dabble in jazz bands. Almost every musician teaches on the side.

“It’s very competitive to get a full-time position in an orchestra,” says Kenneth Raskin, operations and personnel manager for the Sacramento Philharmonic and former freelance trumpeter. “People don’t understand the number of hours of practicing, the commitment for years and years, and the study of music that it takes to get a job.”

Locally, the Sacramento Philharmonic began in 1997, following the dissolution of the Sacramento Symphony, which had employed a core group of full-time musicians. The current philharmonic, however, is a part-time regional orchestra, which means its 80-plus musicians earn a per-service fee—a flat rate for each rehearsal and show, with principal musicians earning slightly more than the rest of the ensemble.

About half of McPherson’s income comes from teaching. The rest from orchestra gigs.

A musician in the Sacramento Philharmonic earns between $2,000 to $10,000 in the course of a year, explains executive director Marc Feldman. He estimates that only about 15 orchestras nationwide offer enough work for a professional musician to make a comfortable living.

“I’ve done better than most,” says Sacramento Philharmonic principal bassist Tom Derthick. “All things considered, we seem to be weathering the storm. It’s a different world than it was 15 years ago.”

On this fall morning, three musicians trickle in to begin rehearsing the opera. They only have one week to perfect the music.

“It’s always the winds [who arrive] first,” McPherson observes. “Oh, we got some strings.”

Woodwinds take a long time to warm up. String and brass players are quicker. All musicians are like athletes: They need to prepare their muscles and practice every day.

The Sacramento Philharmonic puts on three operas a year, along with a chamber-music series. They also accompany the Sacramento Ballet.

This season, the orchestra will perform four concerts and host a solo recital. Usually, they perform five, but the musicians’ union agreed to a wage freeze, so their schedule was reduced. Next year, they’ll once again perform five concerts.

Musicians are busiest during the holiday season—a role in the local Nutcracker ensemble requires 14 performances alone. The orchestra’s next big concert takes place January 23, when Egyptian maestro Nader Abbassi conducts.

McPherson assembles her instruments. She starts playing her clarinet at the lowest measure and works her way up slowly, focusing on her breathing. She’s been up since 6 a.m., just to have time to go for a walk and get a quick energy boost; clarinet playing requires strong abdominal muscles and stamina.

After the musicians finish warm-ups, opera conductor Timm Rolek takes his seat.

“We’re going to ping-pong our way through the score,” he says, starting at the downbeat of the second bar. The silent room at once becomes rich with music.

The Elixir of Love is a comedy, so Rolek directs the musicians to make the accents bold. The musicians work through the piece, often picking up their pencils to add new marks for interpretations and directions specific to this production. The music serves only as a starting point.

Conductors expect that musicians at a professional level already know a work’s sheet music and have spent a considerable number of hours practicing and listening to recordings before the first rehearsal. This preparation means the conductor can focus on finessing all the separate parts together into one.

“It’s about making the music great,” says McPherson, who spends two hours a day practicing the clarinet. Right before a job, she’ll practice up to four hours daily.

The musicians’ goal come opening night: Make the audience believe the orchestra’s performance is effortless.

Playing in a professional orchestra, however, is far from effortless. First, musicians audition for permanent positions. Sometimes a musician will substitute in another symphony. If the conductor is happy with the performance, a musician will be called back. According to Raskin, a freelancer rarely turns down a job. Thousands of musicians vie for a limited number of coveted orchestra jobs.

For 50 years, the now-defunct Sacramento Symphony employed a group of full-time musicians. Bassist Tom Derthick had played with the Sacramento Symphony since 1980. He says only about 20 people from the previous symphony play in the Sacramento Philharmonic.

Although the philharmonic sold out its first concert of the season in October—Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9—orchestras have never relied on ticket sales to pay the bills. Rich patrons traditionally support the arts, including the orchestra, theater, ballet and opera.

Nowadays, fundraising has become more difficult, as big-time donors watch their 401(k)s shrink. In turn, they have less to give.

“The challenge is to find more ways to raise money,” Raskin says. “When you consider what we’re providing, it’s not just expendable fluff. Culture and arts, especially in tough times, are really important. It’s a spiritual thing.”

The local orchestra recently received $25,000 in federal economic-stimulus money, which the organization is using for a Free Neighborhood Family Concerts series, in partnership with the B Street Theatre. Soloists will perform Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, Francis Poulenc’s Masked Ball and Bohuslav Martinu’s Kitchen Revue at five locations in Sacramento County.

The orchestra also partners with the opera and ballet as part of a new approach by Feldman, who took over as director three years ago. He also implemented an exchange program, in which musicians from the Middle East perform with the local orchestra.

“I really believe that is going to be the future of orchestras,” Feldman says. “We have to find ways of collaborating. The orchestras that are doing well are the ones that are very tied to the pride of the community.”

He hopes to target new audiences, specifically what industry jargon calls “culturally aware nonattenders”: people who read, surf the Internet, keep up on world news yet don’t take advantage of performance art. There are also those people who think they must travel to San Francisco for high-caliber classical music.

“In Sacramento, we have musicians, dancers and artists who make their livelihood from art,” Feldman says. “They studied at conservatories that are just as tough as medical school. They’ve gone through rigorous auditions.”

Yet, the local orchestra hasn’t gained the same notoriety and funding as cities such as Portland, Ore., or Cleveland, which both boast full-time, renowned symphonies.

So is Sacramento lagging behind?

Feldman says yes, but he argues that the answer is more complex. These other cities have well-funded orchestras with long cultural traditions.

And then there’s money. Sacramento’s budget is $1.5 million. Portland’s budget is $15 million. And Cleveland’s budget: $43 million.

But Derthick says there will always be an audience. “I love the music. I love the ensemble,” he says while heading back to his seat for four more hours of rehearsals that fall afternoon. “This is more fulfilling than most people’s jobs, but you have to hustle a little bit more. It’s a labor of love.”