Wilminton Symphony - on the Path to Professional

Pay-for-play is the new game at the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra. For the first time in its 35-year history as a volunteer group, the Orchestra is moving toward paying stipends? to some of its players.

Wilmington, NC – What does an eighty-dollar check mean for a Wilmington Symphony Orchestra player, after she's put in five weeks of rehearsals and given up a Saturday night to perform? WSO Executive Director Reed Wallace thinks it could mean everything.

"Our musicians have opportunities to play weddings, play special events, and earn some money, frankly. So that is changing the climate in which we operate and how we compete for musicians' time."

And the Symphony's not just competing with other local gigs. Nearby orchestras also use stipends to lure the area's best performers. In an increasingly competitive market for musicians the WSO is trying to meet the challenge, with cash.

"We think this is directly linked, or will have a direct impact on artistic excellence and a lot of our players have told us so. And I think it's just time."

This year won't actually be the first time players have picked up those lovely little envelopes at the end of a performance. For years now, the Symphony has tried to provide a stipend for any concert above their standard season of five shows. But after a round of long-range planning last spring, the group decided it was time to become more public about its slow move toward professionalism.

The Symphony is easing into the idea of paying its players: it's not paying much, it's not paying everyone, and it's not paying for every performance. Instead, as a first step, the WSO formed a new group - 'Wilmington Symphony Select.'

The WSS musicians rehearsing for this weekend's performance of Handel's Messiah are giving the recital hall in UNCW's new Cultural Arts Building its inaugural workout. But they're pioneers in another sense, too.

Symphony Select is a transitional creation, a smaller paid core drawn from the ranks of the regular orchestra. It's concerts will be additions to the Symphony's regular season, not quite a part of it. After debuting with Messiah, the group will play a fundraising performance in the spring.

And for the ten or more hours of work these performers put into a concert, they'll each receive $80 ... just enough to cover gas and babysitting.

But the stipend is at least a token of gratitude for musicians who have other options.

Leaving the rehearsal, oboist and select member Amy Hensen says she was recently approached by Myrtle Beach's Long Bay Symphony about performing in their Messiah concert this weekend.

"They actually called me. They had a last-minute death in the family of one of the oboe players and they called me and asked me if I could do it. And you know, they pay, for all of their concerts, and they get their rehearsals done all in one weekend."

Hensen said her first allegiance has always been to the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra, but says a stipend could help player loyalty. But it may be hard on player unity.

Conductor Steven Errante describes the path towards professionalism as a very divisive process; everyone involved is aware it will change the nature of this all-volunteer orchestra.

"It's a different thing. When volunteers are involved, you depend on their good will and if they play a few wrong notes, it's okay, they're volunteers. But if you're paying people, and say they play wrong notes, then you just don't hire them next time. So there's a whole different kind of dynamic that goes on."

Errante admits that some players are unhappy with the change. But at least Wilmington's Symphony is hardly alone in making it.

Fayetteville's Symphony recently increased the size of the honorarium it offers. Fayetteville's maestro, Fouad Fakhouri, says that although most of his musicians play for the love of music, the promise of reward has definitely sweetened their notes.

"And I've noticed a huge result in terms of our ability as an orchestra, and in terms of the sound the orchestra produces now... the level of performance is exceptionally high" he says, when compared to two or three years ago.

At the bottom line, there is still of course, the bottom line. The Wilmington Symphony Orchestra currently operates on about a quarter of a million dollar annual budget, all from ticket sales and fundraising. The added expense of player stipends is going to require new sources of income, and, says conductor Errante, caution.

"There are some orchestras that have over-reached, and have folded. There are some pretty big horror stories in the orchestral world. So here in Wilmington, we're trying to avoid that."

To get through this transition both the orchestra, and its supporters, will have to navigate a fine line between the group's volunteer ideals and its professional aspirations. But, Errante says, the final question for the public is - do they want Wilmington's best musicians performing in town... or hitting the road?

Follow the links for performance schedules:
The Wilmington Symphony Orchestra.
Long Bay Symphony
The Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra