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Question and Answer Forum

Welcome to the Question and Answer Forum — Visitors to this site provide the questions, and Oregon Symphony musicians provide the answers. Once you have finished reading the postings below, click here to send us your own question. We’ll post it below with an answer. We’re looking forward to hear from you.

Do Oregon Symphony musicians have tenure?
“Tenure” is somewhat of a misleading term. In a Union orchestra it essentially means that a musician has passed an introductory period of time (about two years in the case of this orchestra) after which he or she has an established appeal process for dismissal for artistic reasons. We have learned that the National Symphony Orchestra was the probably the first US orchestra to have a peer review panel as the body making final and binding decisions for artistic dismissals. This came as a result of the National Symphony’s 1964 strike over the dismissal of 5 musicians from the orchestra. Other orchestras adopted a peer review appeal process after similar large-scale unilateral dismissals. Like the Oregon Symphony, nearly every American orchestra has had a “tenure” system in place for decades. The Oregon Symphony has new contract language which improves the safety net for a musician whose skill sets come under the scrutiny of the music director (see Paper Chase).

Why is tenure so important? To quote Robert Levine of the Milwaukee Symphony, ”Job security is one of the core goals of the union movement. To the extent that it needs justification in our industry, the justification is that, by making orchestra jobs more secure and better-paid, the union movement has brought a far deeper pool of talent into our industry, enabling a large number of orchestras to provide service to their communities of a quality that was rarely obtained even by the best orchestras prior.“
Why does the first chair violin get her own applause? Is she more important or something?
Everyone in the orchestra is important. The first chair player of each section is the "principal" for that section. He or she is responsible for playing all the solos for that instrument, and has some authority over the way that section plays (like deciding bowings in the string section, for example). The Principal First Violin is also called the Concertmaster. After the conductor, she has the final say over the coordination of the entire string section, and, traditionally, the entire orchestra. Orchestras have been around a lot longer than conductors, typically with the concertmaster leading things while playing.
I attended a concert where you performed the 5th Symphony of Shostakovich. At the very end, I noticed that the violins’ bows were all going in opposite directions. It seemed deliberate. Why was this?
Great question. You are right about the bows, and not only in the violins but all the string instruments. The conductor had made the decision that our bows should not be coordinated for the repeating notes at the end of the symphony. There is a practical reason for this: if our bowing matched, you might start to hear the difference in sound between the “upbows” and the “downbows” (the downbow can sound stronger). Yet, this choice also leads to a more strident feeling at the conclusion of the piece — an artistic decision by the conductor not to let the end of the symphony sound triumphant.
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