Tag Archives: new york city

NYC Beginning to Come Alive!

Having lived in New York City for over 40 years, I’ve learned that a very important part of what makes this vibrant, pulsating, multi-cultural city so special is the people who live here and the tourists who visit. During normal times, walking around the five boroughs of New York can be like a world tour. Each borough is composed of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has its own flavor. The first indication that you’ve entered a wonderfully different and fascinating part of the city is the language that can be overheard (in addition to English) and then the distinctive foods that are available, associated with that neighborhood’s predominant culture.

Both the United States and Canada are nations of immigrants, and our countries have benefitted greatly from their talent, work ethic, and often the genius that immigrants have contributed to our societies. With all the political controversy that swirls around us daily, particularly the demonizing of immigration in the US, it’s important never to lose sight of how much we have gained from accepting and embracing those from other countries who have a burning desire to become an American or a Canadian citizen.

New Yorkers have learned to live together in what is a very densely populated city. Last March and April, the density became painfully evident as the coronavirus swept through New York City, infecting many people. Downstate New York became the world’s hotspot for coronavirus, and the fear was that our hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units would become overwhelmed. Our governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bill de Blasio made daily television appearances updating the current coronavirus numbers (reporting new cases, new hospitalizations, released hospital patients, and, sadly, deaths).

Both the governor and the mayor would beseech New Yorkers to do everything they could to bend the spiking upward curve in the opposite direction. New Yorkers heeded the warnings and complied by sheltering in place, wearing masks if one needed to leave home, washing hands often, and social distancing. “The City That Never Sleeps” was forced into slumber. New York City became something akin to a ghost town as the traffic disappeared and sidewalks emptied (see inset photo).

West 42nd St. in New York City, a major crosstown thoroughfare, has been devoid of traffic or pedestrians for months, as seen in this photo.

Compliance with guidance from our state and city governments has been the key to bringing our COVID-19 numbers down to much more manageable levels, allowing the New York AFM office, along with our Toronto, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, offices to re-open cautiously and slowly with very reduced staff, rotating days, and flexible hours. Body temperatures are taken each morning as the AFM staff arrives at the NYC office. All AFM offices are marked to maintain social distancing and masks are worn when leaving workstations or personal offices. Personal Protection Equipment (hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks) is readily available to the staff. For now, the offices are open to AFM staff only, no visitors at this time.

It is painful to watch reports as other areas of the United States become the new coronavirus hotspots. I am left dumbfounded by the pictures of huge gatherings at beaches and pools, bars and parties—so many people ignoring the social-distancing and mask-wearing guidance based on science. In some way, they must have felt themselves invulnerable to the virus. Risking their own lives is one thing, but risking the lives of all those they come into contact with afterwards is quite another. No one has the right to act irresponsibly by risking the lives of others because they’re bored, tired of staying sheltered, or believe they have an unrestricted right to do what they please. 

Think about all the first responders, healthcare workers, and medical professionals who are willing to risk their lives in order to save the lives of others. Why would one want to risk becoming part of the problem unnecessarily? Banging pots and pans from front yards and apartment balconies to show appreciation for our healthcare heroes is a beautiful statement recognizing the sacrifices they make on a daily basis, but we are all responsible for staying as safe as possible to hopefully avoid the need for their services.

Of course, there are no guarantees we won’t catch this very contagious virus. We all assume some level of risk every time we leave our homes, but taking unnecessary risks by acting irresponsibly is an open invitation to a deadly virus that puts all of us at risk. We can and we must do better. Please stay safe.

Belinda Whitney

Belinda Whitney: Tapestry of Support Shapes Compelling Career

Belinda Whitney

photo credit: Matt Dine

Violinist Belinda Whitney of Local 802 (New York City) has forged an exciting and diverse career. She’s currently concertmaster and personnel manager for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, concertmaster for the Broadway show My Fair Lady, performs with the Harlem Chamber Players, plus does a wide range of commercial gigs. She credits her success to all the people that believed in her and helped her along the way.

Whitney’s journey in music began at school. “No one is more a product of music in the public schools than I am,” she says, recalling the first time she heard a string quartet in second grade in Philadelphia. Later, she was one of two students from each classroom selected to take violin lessons.

Her remarkably dedicated violin teacher, John Hamilton, invested heavily in his students, traveling to their homes once a week for free, private lessons. “He would give me lessons until I couldn’t concentrate anymore and then he would stay for dinner,” she recalls. It was the only payment he would accept. “He also took us to free concerts, found performance opportunities for us, and he introduced us to a summer camp.” Still teaching and performing, Hamilton is now a member of Local 294 (Lancaster, PA).

Already gigging in college, Whitney joined Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) as a student. “It was very formal. I had an interview and I dressed up and brought my violin. The interviewer asked a lot of questions. I played some scales and a little solo,” she says. “It really drove home the fact that I was becoming part of something. We had pride in what we were doing and I valued that.” However, she had no idea how important her union would be later.

Whitney received a Bachelor of Music from Temple University and a Master of Music from The Juilliard School, where she was a scholarship student of Ivan Galamian. Though her studies were classical, the music she wished to play was more commercial. “I always loved old movies and the sound of old TV show orchestras,” she says. “When I started doing freelance gigs in college, my professor said, ‘Now, don’t you enjoy these gigs too much.’ But, I loved doing commercial work.”

Before graduation, she was already hired to play in Philadelphia that summer for The King and I with Yul Brynner. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not out of school and I already have a job,’” says Whitney who was 23 at the time. “I loved it. I got to work with a lot of seasoned pros; it was a great introduction.”

“At the time, big stars would go on the road,” she says. Following The King and I, she worked on several other shows—Sugar Babies with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney and Mame with Angela Lansbury—and other acts that came through Philadelphia and Atlantic City. “I recorded with Sigma Sounds and Philadelphia International Records and did symphonic work as well. I felt like I had it all.”

Belinda Whitney

Photo credit: Kevin Yatarola

Her first full-time symphony position was as associate concertmaster for Savannah Symphony. “They sort of took a chance on me because I had no experience [as concertmaster],” she says. When the former concertmaster left, Whitney became one of the first black concertmasters for a large symphony. “That was a big feather in my cap that led to a lot of other things.”

After a few years, she wanted a change of pace and moved back to Philadelphia. A short time later she had her first gig on Broadway. The concertmaster for City of Angels dropped out just weeks before the show’s opening and John Miller, a Local 802 contractor, hired her. “It was a little odd to start in New York as concertmaster for a Broadway show, but I’d already paid my dues elsewhere,” says Whitney who went on to have a long and rewarding association with Miller. “I feel really lucky for that,” she says.

According to Whitney, one of the most important duties of a Broadway concertmaster is to maintain high standards. Not everyone is cut out for Broadway, she says. “In a symphony, you prepare a different concert every week or so. With a Broadway show, you play the same thing over and over—for years, if you are lucky. Being a concertmaster for a Broadway show is a matter of maintenance: keeping standards up, while keeping the work atmosphere inclusive, light, and pleasant. New York is full of incredibly fantastic musicians and it’s important to foster an atmosphere of respect in the pit.”

“I don’t mind playing the same thing over and over,” she says. “I feel when you play Broadway you are either building up or tearing down. You are either playing your best and thinking ‘tonight I’m going to make my sound a little better’ or just phoning it in, which is tearing down. As a concertmaster, it is my challenge to keep the standards high in the face of repetition.”

Whitney has now served as concertmaster for many Broadway shows. When asked for her personal favorite, she replies, “I could tell you why they are all my favorites. I’ve always loved old musicals. At Lincoln Center, I was concertmaster, as well as in-house contractor, for South Pacific, The King and I (which I did for a second time), and currently My Fair Lady.”

Music Coordinator David Lai of Local 802 first asked her to contract for South Pacific. “I tend to take on challenges,” she says. “He led me through it. It was a big orchestra—30 people—and by the time everyone was allotted five subs, we were talking 180 people. That was a pretty big payroll and a lot of people to get to know.”

That’s when she first realized all the little things her union does behind the scenes to make sure musicians are compensated and treated fairly. “I really can’t imagine navigating the musical freelance business without the union,” she says, describing how she acts as a bridge to the union. “I enjoy people—facilitating work situations and making them run as smoothly and painlessly as possible.”

Today, Whitney is also contractor and personnel director for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which she’s been involved with from its inception. When she first met with founder and Local 802 member Gary Fagin about his ideas, Whitney discovered they had similar approaches to music. “We both value musicians who are experienced in a variety of styles,” she says. “He said he felt New York freelance musicians are among the most well-rounded musicians in the world today, and have extensive playing experience, at the highest level, in many different styles. This was exactly what he wanted for Knickerbocker.”

Belinda Whitney

photo credit: Cenovia Cummins

Whitney also told him she would not contract an orchestra that didn’t provide fair wages and benefits for its musicians. “We agreed on this from day one,” she says. “We’ve had some unusual requests and Gary always says, ‘We do it the right way or we don’t do it.’ It’s been wonderful to be the bridge between this orchestra, this man who has this fantastic vision, and the union whose priority is getting people the benefits to which they are entitled. These musicians are absolutely valued.”

The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra is Lower Manhattan’s orchestra, she says. “It started 10 years ago, not long after 9/11, at a time when so many orchestras were folding. It’s been wonderful to be a part of building it and I feel lucky to have done that.”

Whitney thrives in the diverse work of a freelance musician, which for her has also included film scores, records, and working with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Barbra Streisand, and Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI). She can also be heard, along with violinist Cenovia Cummins of Local 802, in the recording of the tango introduction to the show Mystery Masterpiece Theatre.

As an old movie buff, Whitney felt particularly blessed when she met Donald O’Connor during an MGM special at Carnegie Hall. “I went to his dressing room and we had a great time talking. At the concert, he spoke about his experiences with MGM. As they dimmed the lights to play a video of his routine ‘Make ’Em Laugh.’ I saw him walking over to me. He says, ‘Now let’s watch,’ and puts his arm around me and we watched it together. I was on stage at Carnegie Hall, watching ‘Make ’Em Laugh’ with Donald O’Connor’s arm around me! That really tickled me.”

Among the necessities for a successful freelance career, according to Whitney, are union membership, networking, affability, and professionalism. Earning livable wages as a freelance musician would not be feasible without the union, she contends. “The union really pulls it all together. I think we take our union for granted, but the way the freelance world works is really a product of our union’s hard work.”

“Respect, pleasantness, networking, and being on time and ready to play are huge for musicians,” she continues. “In a big group of musicians, you may not stand out. But, if you are early, ready to play, dependable, and friendly, people will want you around. The music world today is very competitive and there are a lot of people who can do a job pretty well. Sometimes networking skills can give you a slight edge. People will forgive a lot of missteps if they realize you are eager to learn and pleasant to be around. We all remember when we were young.”

It’s also critical to be a well-rounded musician, she says. “My experiences in Broadway, the recording business, and the classical business keep looping around for me. One takes me to the other, then back to the first. It’s been a rich experience learning different styles.”

Looking back on her career Whitney is thankful to everyone who helped her succeed. “God has blessed me more than I ever thought and I feel humbled that so many people took a chance on me. When I take inventory of my journey I realize that my career is like a tapestry of all the people who invested in me—from my family who encouraged and believed in me, to my parents driving me all over the country to music camps, to that very first teacher,” she says. “I love that I’m involved with the Harlem Chamber Players and Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which put on children’s concerts. Investing in others is really important because that’s what brought me here.”

Whitney feels that working with young children is key to bringing more racial diversity to symphony orchestras. “By the time musicians are out of college, I feel like it should be a level playing field,” she says. “I think the reason I did as well as I did was because people invested so heavily in me before I got to college.”

“When I talk to my colleagues, many of them had parents who played an instrument so they started at a very early age and music was a part of the home. But about 90% of the black professional musicians I know started music in the public schools. So that means they are starting later. I think we should invest in programs targeting younger people so when they get to college they are already competitive,” she says.

Tania León

Tania León: A Celebration of Diversity in Composing and Life

Tania León

Tania León of Local 802 (New York City) conducts the Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) in the premiere of her work Pa’lante. (Photo credit: Craig Mathew)

The music of North America would be vastly different if not for the richness brought from other cultures. That’s one reason why the career of Tania León is so remarkable. If she had not bravely come to the US on a 1967 “Freedom Flight” from Cuba, she would not have gifted New York City and the country with her talents and influence, inspiring generations of artists. The pianist, composer, conductor, and educator’s career culminated in the founding of her own composer organization and festival seven years ago.

“I wanted to create something that brought composers together from all walks of life,” says León. Founded in 2010, her nonprofit Composers Now is dedicated to empowering all living composers, while celebrating the diversity—in gender, culture, genre—of their voices and contributions. This month, composers gather in New York City to take part in this year’s theme: “the impact of arts in our society.”

“We have more than 99 events all over the city—each attended by the composer,” says León. “It’s a very inclusive audience.”

A proud and longtime member of Local 802 (New York City), León recalls joining the union early in her career when she was as an accompanist and worked as a music director and conductor for Broadway shows, including The Wiz and The Human Comedy. “I’ve worn lots of different hats, and all the while, backed up and supported by the union. A lot of musicians depend on Local 802. The AFM is a core organization—instrumental to having a career in music.”

Cuban Roots

Tania León

Tania León of Local 802 (New York City) looks on while Henry Louis Gates, Jr., speaks at a September 2017 event commemorating the anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock High School. (Photo credit: Blake Tyson)

Though she grew up poor in Havana, León’s entire family supported her remarkable musical talent. Her grandmother insisted she be admitted to the music conservatory at age four, before she could even read. Her grandfather purchased a piano for the household when León was five. An avid reader, her grandmother often spoke to her about artists—Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Leonard Bernstein—many of whom Tania later got to work with.

When she was nine years old, León’s teacher casually planted the seed of her becoming an international pianist. While performing in France, he sent her a postcard of the Eiffel Tower. “It had such an impact; I kept saying to my family that one day I would live in Paris,” says León.

Before leaving Cuba, she earned a BA and MA from Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory, and simultaneously, earned her CPA from the school of commerce—in case her dream of being a musician never materialized. “My family did so much to give me the best education they could,” she says.

Arriving first in Miami, she knew the city could not offer the opportunities needed to launch a music career. She explained her predicament to a church sponsor. Three days later she had a one-way ticket to New York City, which she has called home ever since.

León was able to work as an accountant at the Americana Hotel, while she worked towards validating her degrees in the US. “Following an audition, I was given an almost instant scholarship from New York College of Music and they sent me to study English at New York University [NYU],” she says. Eventually she earned her BA and MS from NYU.

Soon after arriving in the country in 1967, she became aware her new home was facing challenges—protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War were in full swing. While New York City was diverse and accepting, the unrest in the country raised her consciousness. “At NYU there was a rally every three days and the suspension of classes. Because I didn’t speak English, my classmates would tell me what to scream when we attended the rallies,” she says. “Within that first year after my arrival, Martin Luther King was assassinated.”

“When I first saw what was going on with desegregation I was saddened,” she says. Coming from a multi-racial background, racism was not something she had experienced up to that point in her life. “My neighborhood [in Cuba] was integrated. We were unified in that we were all poor.”

Racism is something she’s never been able to wrap her head around. “I don’t care what you look like. There are no two people in the world with the same skin tone; we are all different,” she says. “We all reflect each other; we are all created in the image of one another; and everyone has something to give.”

Birth of a Composer

A chance meeting with Arthur Mitchell, the New York City Ballet’s first African American principal dancer, changed the course of her life. She had agreed to sub as a ballet accompanist, and during a break, she met Mitchell when he heard her playing. “The door opened and there he was; it was like he’d come out of a movie set,” she says.

Eventually, he asked if she’d like to help with his new project, Dance Theatre of Harlem. Motivated by the assassination of King, Mitchell had the idea of using art, specifically dance, to affect social change. León became the organization’s first music director. Eventually, Mitchell inspired León to create her first composition, Tones, which she dedicated to her grandmother.

“One day Arthur said to me, ‘Why don’t you write a piece and I will do the choreography?” recalls León. “The whole experience moved me so much that I wanted to change my major to composition.”

Similarly, on the suggestion of Mitchell, León first conducted the Juilliard Orchestra for a Dance Theatre of Harlem performance in Italy. “The next thing I knew, I was in the pit and the next day my picture was in the paper with the caption ‘woman conductor,’” she says. “When we came back, I studied conducting.”

León never thought she would write an opera either. When she was first contacted by Munich Biennale festival founder Hans Werner Henze to write one, she thought it was a joke. Her opera, Scourge of Hyacinths, commissioned in 1994 and based on a BBC radio play by Wole Soyinka, won the BMW Prize for best new opera at the festival in 1999.

León instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert series in 1978. Over the years, she’s advised and worked with dozens of other organizations, among them: The New York Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, Sonidos de las Americas Festivals, International Alliance of Women in Music, Quintet of the Americas, Symphony Space, Sphinx Organization, Orquesta Sinfonica de las Americas, altaVoz, and Chamber Music America.

Today, León is an inspiration to young composers, a cultural activist, and a champion for contemporary music. She has been a professor at Brooklyn College since 1985 and is a City University of New York (CUNY) distinguished professor since 2010. As a professor, she sees her role as supportive: teaching students to believe in themselves and helping them to bring out their best compositions.

“I encourage them to follow their beliefs and support them spiritually—to find who they are. We all get preoccupied about how to start a piece and the first time the piece is heard by others. In my teaching, I incorporate everything—how to bow, how to address an audience, and how they are going to make a living,” she explains. “After years of working, you develop your voice. And hopefully, with that voice, you can write in different styles.”

Return to Cuba

Even she had to find her voice. Early in her composing career, in 1979, León visited with her father in Cuba. She played him some of her compositions. “Before I left, my father said my music was very interesting, but asked ‘where are you in your music?’ Unfortunately, that was our last conversation and I was left with that question, not knowing what he meant,” she says.

As she thought about her trip and Cuba, it occurred to her that she could include traces of the music of her primary culture in the music she was composing. Shortly after, she began Four Pieces for Cello. “The third movement, ‘Tumbao,’ refers to my father’s way of walking—very happy from the heart. That was my first gesture where I included myself,” she says.

In 2016, León was invited to return to her birthplace to perform for the first time. She conducted the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in a program that included one of her works. León, who has memories of attending the symphony’s concerts with her grandmother, dedicated the performance to her ancestors.

The Little Rock Nine Opera

Tania León

(Photo credit: Andrea Morales)

León is currently working on her latest commission, The Little Rock Nine opera. Commissioned by the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), the opera tells the story of the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Rollin Potter, former dean of UCA’s College of Fine Arts, came up with the idea and Thulani Davis wrote the libretto.

As she researched the project, León was deeply moved. Research is important to any commission, she explains. “When you get a commission and you have to start writing, you panic. What is important to say? You have to get inspired. At least with an opera I collaborate with the librettist.”

She first met with historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., historical researcher for the opera. Then, in September 2017, at the event “Imagine If Buildings Could Talk: Mapping the History of Little Rock Central High School,” she met the surviving Little Rock Nine and even some reporters who had covered those defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

“They spoke and gave their stories,” says León. “I remember all my dreams when I was studying at their age. I believe in empathy and compassion. You have to put yourself in the heart and shoes of the characters. I’ve been trying to hear the syntax of the Little Rock students.”

One thing León has felt strongly about is the Little Rock Nine’s chorus. “I hope the members of the chorus will address diversity to show how much we have grown in compassion and empathy,” she says. The premiere of the opera (in concert form) will be at the high school around the end of 2018 or early 2019.

Commissions & Accolades

In December 2017 León’s composition Ser, commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, premiered. Other recent premieres include Pa’lante, (commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Youth Orchestra LA), Ethos (commissioned by the New York State Council of the Arts for Symphony Space), del Caribe, soy! (commissioned by Saint Martha Concerts for flutist Nestor Torres), and Inura (commissioned and premiered by Dance Brazil).

In January, it was announced that León was selected for a $50,000 United States Artists (USA) fellowship. In 2017, she was honored as one of Musical America’s 30 Professionals of the Year. Among other honors, she was awarded the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, ASCAP Victor Herbert Award (2013), and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2010. She has also received accolades from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and Meet the Composer, among others.

Even today, León retains her sense of wonder about the world, recalling the sequence of events that brought her to where she is today. She remembers her excitement about witnessing last year’s eclipse in Central Park. She still cannot understand, with the vastness of the universe, why people put so much emphasis on how we look and speak.

“We are riding on this vessel and there’s this universe we don’t even know about. It doesn’t make sense that we don’t respect each other,” she says.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Ratifies New Agreement

In November, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra announced that it has ratified a new CBA with its musicians, effective through 2020. The contract includes a wage increase of 2.5% per year for New York City rates, as well as restructured rates in other markets. The contract introduces a new chamber music scale, reflecting the orchestra’s increased presence throughout the tri-state area, and a community engagement scale, reflecting a commitment to broaden its reach in the local New York City community.

The new agreement provides more flexibility in touring rules, allowing Orpheus to adjust to complex travel schedules. A new Artistic Oversight Committee will continually evaluate the orchestra’s structure and artistic quality. Finally, the contract allows Orpheus to augment its roster by hiring musicians into a new “associate membership” tier.

The orchestra was recently awarded an increased grant of $175,000 from The Howard Gilman Foundation to support its 2017-2018 New York City performance activity. Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, whose musicians are members of Local 802 (New York City), is unique in its structure and governance, performing without a conductor and rotating musical leadership roles for each work.

Musicians Return

Musicians Return to the Bandstand, The Circus Is Back in Town

On October 27, the Big Apple Circus made its return to Lincoln Center, just in time to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Created by former European street performers Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, Big Apple Circus debuted in New York City’s Battery Park in 1977, relocating to Lincoln Center in 1981. Over the years, it became a New York City holiday season staple. However, unable to recover from the 2008 recession, the nonprofit, one-ring circus filed for bankruptcy in 2016.

Last February, Big Top Works purchased Big Apple Circus and set to work restoring the beloved show and returning its performers to work.

Local 802 (New York City) Business Representative Marisa Friedman is in charge of the AFM contract covering the Big Apple Circus musicians. “Our main concern was that the circus would continue to use live music and that the musicians who worked for the old circus would continue to work for this new one,” she says. “Negotiations went very well. It was clear that the circus valued live music and wanted to make a fair deal with Local 802.” In the end, the union negotiated an improved three-year agreement for the musicians.

According to Big Apple Circus Conductor Rob Slowik of Local 802 (New York City), the show’s band has eight permanent musicians. “Everybody who is on the new primary hiring list has played with the circus before, but a few of the former musicians moved out of state and are doing gigs in other parts of the country,” he says.

Musicians Return

The Big Apple Circus band (L to R) back row: Wages Argott, Jacob Levitin, Jeff Barone, Brian Killeen, Patrick Firth, and Michael Bellusci; middle row Neil Johnson and Jim Lutz; in front, Conductor Rob Slowik.

“We essentially just made modifications to the old agreement. We expanded the scope of the recognition agreement to cover more work, added health and safety protections, and also included payment for promotional use of recorded material,” explains Friedman. “The musicians will receive increases in wages and health benefits—something they have not had in several years due to the circus’s financial problems.”

Among new band members is Local 802 and 256-733 (Birmingham, AL) member Wages Argott, a trumpet player who was the bandleader for the Ringling Blue show that closed earlier this year. Slowik brought him on as associate conductor. “It’s nice that I have a sub who has already conducted thousands of circuses,” says Slowik, also a trumpet player. A couple other former Ringling musicians are on the sub list for this year.

“Each year brings a new Big Apple Circus show, with a new cast and new music, but the same band,” explains Slowik. “We change the instrumentation depending on the show theme, but we always use our hiring list. Once a musician plays with us and is on the contract, they have the right to first refusal, if we use their instrument again.”

Musicians Return

The musicians of the Big Apple Circus band have returned to their bandstand with an improved three-year AFM contract negotiated by Local 802 (New York City).

The circus’s 2017 theme focuses on its 40th anniversary. “The set looks like the skyline of New York City and the music draws from all the different contemporary musical styles represented here—pop, rock, jazz, Latin, classical,” says Slowik. “It’s not music you would normally associate with a circus.”

Among performers headlining the new show are world record holder Nik Wallenda and the Fabulous Wallendas, trapeze artist Ammed Tuniziani of the Flying Tunizianis, as well as Grandma the Clown, who has returned from retirement.

When it comes to music selection for the various acts, Slowik says that the producer makes the final decision, but there is input from the director, as well as the performing act. “We try to honor the act’s needs in terms of tempo and timing, and we like to use music that is going to inspire,” he says. “While there is often some initial resistance to new music from acts who may have used the same music for 10 or 15 years, at the end of the season, they frequently want to buy the music and take it with them.”

Use of a click track helps the band keep to a steady tempo for performances, and Slowik keeps a constant eye on the show for split second adjustments. “We have a lot of vamps built into the music but often we’ll have to create new vamps on the fly,” he says. “Something can go wrong at any point, whether it’s somebody missing a trick, wanting to repeat a trick, or something that goes wrong with the rigging or a prop.”

“I try to get the dogs to count the downbeat of the bar but they don’t listen, and neither do the horses,” laughs Slowik. “One of the nice things about having a band with a lot of circus experience is that they can almost read my mind.”

Musicians new to the circus, even veteran Broadway players, require some training. “They have to come watch the show. I give them a video of me conducting and a pdf of the book. One of the things I tell them is: ‘This vamp is four bars, but the cue could come anywhere, including in the middle of the bar.’ On Broadway, if you have a two-bar or four-bar vamp, it is almost always at the end of four bars. It can take people a while to get used to that. You really have to be aware because the cue could come out of nowhere.”

On occasion, Slowik says he has even become a part of the act. He recalls a skit he did with Grandma the Clown where he was hoisted 30-feet up in the air to play his trumpet. “It was a lot of fun!” he says, adding that he looks forward to something like that happening in the future.

The new Big Apple Circus show premiered October 27 and runs through January 7. After that, it will begin an East Coast tour with stops between Atlanta and Boston. When on tour, the Big Apple Circus travels with about 50% of its core band, hiring local AFM musicians in whatever city it visits.

On Labor Day Workers Demonstrated for Minimum Wage Raise

During Labor Day, the Fight for $15 movement organized protests in 300 cities across the US. In Chicago, hundreds of fast food workers, hospital employees, and airport workers advocated for higher wages and better benefits through a series of walkouts and marches. Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) demonstrated with supporters of the national Fight for $15 movement. Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner recently vetoed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, arguing that it would negatively affect businesses and reduce jobs.

Fast food workers in Boston went on strike Labor Day to highlight their demand for a $15 minimum wage. In Massachusetts, the $15 minimum applies to home care workers and select companies that have chosen to offer it. A planned November 2018 ballot proposal would incrementally raise the minimum from $11 to $15 by 2022.

The $15 minimum wage has been implemented in New York City, California, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis.

Berklee to Restore Power Station Recording Studio

Berklee College of Music has announced it will take over Avatar Studios in Manhattan and rename it Power Station at BerkleeNYC, in a nod to the venue’s previous name and history as a former power plant. The school plans to update the 33,000-square-foot space to the tune of $20 million. Power Station will continue to operate to be a commercial recording studio, plus Berklee will add rehearsal space, practice rooms, and classrooms. Berklee students will be able to do internships and get training at the studio. Everyone from David Bowie to Bon Jovi of Local 204-373 (New Brunswick, NJ) to Bruce Springsteen of Locals 399 (Asbury Park, NJ) and 47 (Los Angeles, CA) have recorded at Power Station studios.

Dawn Hannay: Shining Light on the Union

Dawn Hannay of Local 802 (New York City) looks back on her career and activism as a violist with the New York Philharmonic.

Dawn Hannay of Local 802 (New York City) practically grew up on the stage of the New York Philharmonic. Having joined at 23, in 1979, the violist was one of a handful of women performing with the orchestra at the time. Now comprising more than half women, the oldest ensemble in the country is steeped in history and tradition. Hannay, who retired from her position last October, says she learned quickly, “I was always a bit of a rabble rouser so it wasn’t long before I was elected chair of the musicians’ committee.”

Back then, for an “inexperienced young woman,” there was a learning curve. Hannay explains that in those days music schools did little to prepare string players to master the overwhelming orchestral repertoire. “You had to be a great sight reader and fast learner,” she says, remembering the first time she played Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe suite in Studio 8H at NBC with the mics on, no rehearsal. “It’s like jumping on a speeding train. You have to be tough, especially as a young and very naive woman in what in those days seemed like a good ole boys club, complete with poker games, chain smoking, and even occasional fisticuffs!”

Hannay inherited the torch from those older and more experienced musicians who had fought so successfully to improve the lives of orchestral musicians. She says, “I took on the challenge, and spent decades doing my utmost to improve the working life of my colleagues, negotiating contracts and helping to resolve disputes.”

“The union is crucial in maintaining fair wages and working conditions for all musicians. Younger musicians who prefer to remain independent need to learn the history of their business, and how essential the union is in ensuring that musicians could earn a living from their craft. It is easy to take for granted the 52-week season, health benefits, and pension that we enjoy today,” she says.

What distinguishes prestigious orchestras like the New York Philharmonic from the Vienna Philharmonic? She says it’s “the communication between older players and the next generation. There are many traditions of phrasing and tempi, of fingerings and articulations, of tone quality and bowings, and even jokes that are handed down, such as applauding in rehearsal at the false ending in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.”

Hannay explains that a wise conductor lets an orchestra play, shaping his or her own interpretation, but allowing the unique character of the orchestra to shine through. She says, “There may be fewer than a dozen musicians left in the orchestra who played West Side Story under Leonard Bernstein, but they still play the score like nobody’s business. That’s tradition.” 

Not long ago, playing in an orchestra was among the most precarious of livings. Hannay explains, “It’s almost unheard of nowadays in any profession for people to stay in a single job for 30, 40, or even 50 or more years. It’s the norm here. We owe this extraordinary stability to a whole generation of musicians who fought to make it so. Their work created the continuity that enables the unique musical traditions to be carried forward from generation to generation. Through the efforts of the past generation there are contracts and fair wages.” 

Orchestra standards were set by flutist Julius Baker, clarinetist Stanley Drucker, trumpeter Phil Smith, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, of Local 802. Bassist Orin O’Brien of Local 802 shattered the glass ceiling and became the first woman in the orchestra. Legendary players Buster Bailey, Bert Bial, Ralph Mendelssohn, Newton Mansfield, and John Ware created and added to the history and traditions that make today’s daily performances possible. 

Hannay performs chamber music, appearing often with the New York Philharmonic Ensembles. She spends the summers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, playing with the Grand Teton Music Festival, where she is a founding member of the string quartet Wind River 4. In 2001, she was a featured soloist and guest principal viola with the London Chamber Players on a tour of South Africa.

The Senior Concert Orchestra of New York Returns

The Senior Concert Orchestra of New York returns! It’s always sad when a musical organization no longer has the funds to perform, and that’s why it is ­great news to hear the Senior Concert Orchestra has made a return. This is in thanks to the Music Performance Trust Fund and the Lortel Foundation for supporting the Orchestra.

The MPTF recently hired Dan Beck, a veteran music executive, songwriter and manager. It is with his lead, and the rest of the staff at the MPTF, that made the organization a supporter of the arts by awarding grants to worthy causes such as the Senior Concert Orchestra, which had to leave Carnegie Hall six years ago due to lack of funding. Not surprisingly, Carnegie Hall is one of the most expensive places to perform in The City. They will be one of the first recipients to receive this grant in 2014.

The Senior Concert Orchestra is headed by 84-year-old Gino Smbuco who is a retired violinist with the NY Philharmonic. He fought for a year to get the Orchestra back at Carnegie Hall and with the grant from the Lortel Foundation they were close to accomplishing that goal. It was Dan Beck heading the MPTF that gave them the final push.

The symphony is comprised of players in their 90s, 80s, and 70s with the old musicians being 98-years-old! The rest of the symphony is comprised of local 802 (New York City). Many attended Juilliard and have impressive resumes playing for the Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and City Opera. It’s a diverse group of gender and ethnicities that all have two things in common: they are in their senior years and they love music.

The show is set for November 16 at 3 PM.