Stage Fright

Musicians of the Florida Philharmonic were none too pleased by the settlement of this fall's strike

By 1998 the orchestra was struggling financially. Musicians played without a contract for two months. During this period, which musicians called "play and talk," they narrowly approved a contract that froze wages for a year and increased them by 4 percent in the following 12 months.

At 33 years of age, Andrew Lewinter is trim, well-spoken, and clean-cut. He unexpectedly won his first professional position as a French horn player 14 years ago while still a college student. His doctor father and librarian mother were classical-music fans and concertgoers. They had a subscription to the New Jersey Symphony and would often go to New York City for shows.

FPO music director James Judd offered to give up his 
$250,000 salary to help settle the musician's pay 
Joshua Prezant
FPO music director James Judd offered to give up his $250,000 salary to help settle the musician's pay dispute.
By opening night many audience members were 
oblivious to the details of the bitter labor struggle, and 
in introducing the performance, Judd didn't mention it
Joshua Prezant
By opening night many audience members were oblivious to the details of the bitter labor struggle, and in introducing the performance, Judd didn't mention it

Though his parents never pushed him to play, Lewinter was awestruck by the sound of a Brahms symphony. The appeal was simple, even visceral: "I loved the music." To Lewinter, then a sixth grader, the trombone's fluid movement looked as good as it played: "I just liked the slide."

The school band needed a French horn, though, so he dutifully took up that instrument. By high school he was riding the train into New York City from his hometown of Westfield, New Jersey, to attend Saturday classes at the Juilliard School. He knew he wanted to become a professional musician, and when the time came to apply for college, he knew exactly where he wanted to go: Northwestern, to study under Dale Clevenger, the principal French hornist for the Chicago Symphony.

During his sophomore year at Northwestern, Lewinter learned of an audition in Tampa, Florida. "Just to see what would happen," he says, he saved up the money from his job delivering pizzas to buy a plane ticket and hotel room and prepared to audition alongside 70 other French hornists.

He told no one where he was going.

"I actually got the job," he says, a hint of disbelief still fresh in his voice. "Great day."

Lewinter left Northwestern for a $12,500-per-year gig with the Tampa-based Florida Orchestra. He joined the FPO two years later. "And I've been a professional musician ever since."

During the strike Lewinter, who represented musicians as co-chair of the orchestra committee, never mentioned that he became injured or in players' parlance "busted his chops." After all, the overuse injury isn't the reason he's on leave (he took one year for personal reasons), and he didn't want to call attention to himself. However, the season's grueling schedule includes daytime rehearsals and evening performances and may run eight days in a row. Sometimes musicians play a children's concert in the morning and a regular season program in the evening. This puts stress on players, particularly brass and woodwinds, and can ultimately affect the quality of the music.

"Playing an instrument is like playing a sport," Lewinter says. "The body has limitations. Overuse injuries are very common. A lot of people don't understand that. If you had Nolan Ryan pitch for 40 hours a week, Nolan Ryan wouldn't be Nolan Ryan."

There are two triangles in an orchestra. One is a percussion instrument, the other is love. When the conductor seems smitten with the little violin and viola, the cellos get jealous. Poor cello, she wants to play, too! "Cellos and basses get ignored in rehearsals," laments Steven Sigurdson. "It's the assumption that violins have the melodies, and they have to have the notes down."

Sigurdson, admittedly, is biased. The son of a flutist and a ballet dancer, he has played the cello in the FPO for 13 years, and here, among the students in his cello and bass class in a small, windowless room at the New World School of the Arts, turnabout is fair play.

It's Halloween, a few days after the strike's end has been declared, and outside Miami-Dade Community College's downtown campus, where the New World School is located, the sky is gray and heavy with clouds that give way to a soft drizzle. A monk slinks down the sidewalk while an elf in lime green­striped tights and pointy, Keebleresque shoes lugs her bass onto the elevator.

Upstairs six students ranging in age from 14 to 18 straggle in several minutes past the class' starting time and remove their basses and cellos from padded cases. Algebra problems are chalked on the old-fashioned blackboard; fluorescent lights flicker through ceiling panels overhead. The students leaf through yellowed sheet music to Haydn's Symphony no. 101 in D Major, "Die Uhr."

The name means "the clock," and it's prescient. When the students start playing, time seems to stop; for 20 minutes they repeat a single bar of music. At a precious pause, another student, wearing a ruffled black skirt and high-heeled patent leather sandals, comes in, taking her time as she picks her way through a jumble of music stands and plastic chairs. She stares blankly; Sigurdson stresses the importance of at least appearing to hurry.

"Learn to kiss up," he says good naturedly. "It's all part of being in an orchestra." The students start again, but it's no better. Finally Sigurdson stabs his arm into the air in frustration, and bows screech to a halt.

They are sliding their bows too quickly across the strings and in doing so run out before the note is played; "bow ratio" is the name for it. Sigurdson urges them to use the bow with discipline, savoring every centimeter of catgut.

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