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October 1, 2023IM -
Orchestra musicians of a half-century ago would hardly recognize their jobs if they saw most modern orchestras. Certainly, much of the repertoire is the same, but working conditions have been vastly improved, and musicians today typically take on many other duties to ensure their own futures.
Amy Hess of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), a viola player in both the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra (Lyric) and the Grant Park Orchestra, firmly believes this is how it should be—and she herself is a poster child of sorts for how musician involvement can help bring about positive change. “Many of the gains we’ve made over the last several decades have come about precisely because orchestra musicians have had a direct hand in making that happen,” says Hess, who got her start in committee work fairly early in her orchestral career. Diving right in is something she says she learned to do from an early age.
Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a Suzuki violin teacher and orchestra musician (Elizabeth Hess of Local 135-211, Reading, PA) for a mom, it doesn’t seem like her life could have gone any other way. “All the kids I saw growing up were coming to our house for violin lessons,” she says. “So, my sister and I just naturally started as violinists.”
An early summer experience led Hess to pursue music more seriously. “In my junior year of high school, I took part in the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, a summer arts camp run by the state of Pennsylvania, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore. It was my first time ever at a sleepaway camp, and I was surrounded by not only musicians, but other artists. All these creative people were gathered in one place, feeding off each other’s artistic energy. It led me to realize that I couldn’t live a life without music.”
Dabbling with the viola didn’t come about until Hess’s undergrad years at Oberlin, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2012 with a double degree, earning her bachelor’s in both French and violin. “Two of my best friends were also violinists and we wanted to play chamber music together, so I started playing viola in quartets and slowly fell in love with the instrument,” she recounts. The formal switch to viola happened during her master’s degree studies at Northwestern—and she has never looked back.
“To be honest, I personally am a lot happier in terms of the rep,” she says. “I really love the viola parts, the mellower sound, and all those gnarly inner voices. Also, I identify with those composers who discovered the instrument’s possibilities later in life.”
Today, in addition to being a member of the viola sections of both Lyric and Grant Park Orchestras, she is on the faculty of the Fulton Summer Music Academy. She was formerly principal viola of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Music of the Baroque.
The Fulton Summer Music Academy, a pandemic project and brainchild of Hess and her violinist husband Addison Teng, also of Local 10-208, is another example of her go-getter approach. “We always dreamed about forming our own nonprofit summer music festival. In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 canceled everything, so he quickly put together an online camp for violin students. It seemed like there would never be another opportunity when we had so much free time to explore how to form and run a nonprofit.”
Hess was formerly principal viola of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Music of the Baroque, and is currently a member of the viola sections of both Lyric and Grant Park Orchestras.
Hess is fortunate with her two orchestral positions in that she gets to experience the best of both worlds: symphony and opera. “Both are gratifying in different ways,” she explains. “I really enjoy my summers in Grant Park, playing music where the orchestra is the sole focus. But being in the pit for an opera is fascinating because you get to be part of an artistic work that’s so much larger than just the orchestral music. There are the vocal lines, plus the staging, and it all fits together seamlessly. I love discovering how the orchestra fits into the whole story.”
She recounts that her first opera experience was singing in the children’s choir of an English-language version of La Boheme back home in Pennsylvania when she was in middle school. “I saw a few operas while studying abroad in Paris and enjoyed them, but I didn’t really get hooked until I came to Chicago to study,” she says. “I snagged a main-floor student rush ticket for Richard Strauss’s Elektra at the Lyric Opera of Chicago without fully knowing what I was in for.” Hess found herself utterly transfixed for the entire 100-minute piece. “I remember feeling like the applause at the end broke me out of a spell. I was plastered to the back of my seat thinking, ‘What the heck just happened?’ And then I got to actually play Elektra with Lyric in 2019. It was even more fascinating to experience it from the other side.”
One challenge, she says, is listening to how the singers on stage shade their arias slightly differently on subsequent nights. “It’s fun to follow them at every turn they take. Playing in opera has made me a way better listener for sure. You use the same skills, listening across an orchestra, but with opera, there are these subtle differences.” She adds that it’s also gratifying to have more performances, i.e., an entire opera run, as opposed to two or three performances of a typical orchestral program.
Hess says she also finds committee work to be both challenging and fulfilling—and a crucial part of playing in an orchestra. In addition to serving on the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra committee, Hess has also served on audition committees in Grant Park and taken part in outreach activities. “I joined the Lyric orchestra committee right after I got tenure, in the fall of 2018,” she recalls. “That was shortly after the orchestra’s strike in October, so I got a few years of seeing how the committee worked, learning from others who had years of experience both pre-strike and afterwards.”
Hess’s most recent responsibility has been chairing the orchestra negotiating committee, which works in tandem with the local to bargain with management for new or extended contracts. “Having me chair our negotiations was a decision by the whole five-person committee and ratified by the orchestra. I was honored that my colleagues thought I would be a good fit for it,” she says. “It was a little daunting to take on the responsibility, but I had a great committee behind me, and I had gained a lot of useful experience to help me prepare for the role.”
Since she joined the committee after a strike, Hess says one of their main goals was fostering a better relationship with the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s management. “Not one free of disagreement, obviously, but founded on mutual respect,” she says. “Overall, I think these negotiations went really well. There was openness and honesty, and I believe this helped us come to an agreement about a contract with months to go before our season started.”
She believes honesty—from both sides—is a crucial component in any negotiations. “Honesty with yourself, with your colleagues, and with those sitting across the table from you.” That same honesty is hoped for from management, but Hess admits to healthy caution: “When dealing with management, it’s smart to adopt the approach of ‘trust but verify.’”
She adds that her negotiating committee had invaluable and experienced resources through lawyer (and fellow Local 10-208 member) Kevin Case, backed by a great team at Local 10-208. “This is also why the committee was so effective in fostering a good working relationship with management: we led by example, showing them that we worked as a team and we were open, honest, reasonable, and respectful with each other. We hoped that by setting that standard, we could all be in a place where we trusted each answer,” she said.
Now that negotiations are wrapped up, Hess can return her attention to yet another important committee position: she has been Lyric’s elected delegate to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) since 2018, and holds the same post for the Grant Park Orchestra. She values the input and experiences from the 51 other ICSOM member orchestras. “It’s important for us all to be in the know about what’s happening in our field,” she says. “Each orchestra doesn’t exist in its own little vacuum. We are all influenced by the prevailing winds as they shift around the industry. We need to share ideas and concerns and know that we have each other’s backs.”
Getting younger members of an orchestra involved in committee work is a constant challenge, making them aware that they need to take responsibility for their own future. Actually getting them to take the first step, says Hess, doesn’t have to be difficult. “I think it’s as simple as just asking,” she says. “When new members join the orchestra, we need to ensure they know and understand that they are part of a team, and a family. I got involved because people asked me. It started small, counting ballots, little things like that. Then I moved to community outreach activities, and it ramped up from there.”
Hess says the key is to identify what new members like to do and capitalize on those strengths. “For example, maybe they have great photos on their Instagram, and they’d be a good fit for the musicians’ social media activities.” She adds that education is a big component of involvement. “The 2018 strike was a big one for me in understanding the importance of having a committee backed by the union. It put in perspective for me many things we just take for granted in our contracts.”
Hess recalls a conversation she had with a retiree from the orchestra who remembered the dark season in the 1960s. “He recounted how they fought to have the orchestra’s names listed in the programs. It opened my eyes to seemingly simple things that we take for granted, that had to be fought for.” Such history is priceless, she says, adding that we all learn about unions in American history class in high school, but that knowledge can feel removed from current reality. “Given this summer’s news around WGA, SAG-AFTRA, UPS, and others, I think greater visibility brings more currency to unionism in all different fields.”