Playing in a Mid-Sized Orchestra

The Calgary Philharmonic has 66 full-time players (two trumpets), and big aspirations in a high-powered city. We play a 40 week season which usually includes two or three productions for Calgary Opera, and also for Alberta Ballet. All this spells out the fact that we are a mid-sized orchestra, and that makes for an interesting set of challenges and advantages for the players.

Playing in the pit for the opera and ballet is something we get to do that bigger symphony orchestras often don't. While some have argued that "playing in a pit is boring", I say that's more dependent on the quality of music, which ranges just as widely in the pit as it does onstage. In my time in Calgary already, the contemporary music I've played at the opera has been every bit as good as what we've done onstage, and warhorses from Mozart to Donizetti have been very illuminating for me. You learn a lot about making a phrase from hearing singers up close, and you don't get that perspective from the back of the stage. Ballet has a tendency to sometimes throw together music for a novel production, so it's often a surprise what's going to show up on my stand. Very often it's been fun and challenging. On the other hand, there's a lot of Tchaikovsky, which has moments of great brilliance. Thankfully Nutcracker is fantastic music and a lot of fun to play, so it's something I always look forward to. Unfortunately Alberta Ballet will be performing Nutcracker with recorded music this year, I hope we're back in the pit next time. 

Unlike larger centres, Calgary doesn't have a professional baroque orchestra. This means that there's no competition for that repertoire, and so we can end up with a great deal more baroque music in an orchestra season than many bigger orchestras. Personally, I find the challenge of baroque trumpet parts to be engaging and rewarding, not to mention that I hold baroque music, especially Bach, in the highest regard. 

Further, in the last few years Calgary has also seen the beginning of a trend for non-specialists to begin seriously working on period instruments. The Red Deer Symphony put on a remarkable (and remarkably ambitious) performance of Bach's B-minor Mass last season, thanks to music director Claude Lapalme. The work put in for a long, long time in advance was huge, and I empathized particularly with principal trumpet Richard Scholz, who invested a great deal of himself into what started as an unfamiliar instrument, and ended up with an impressive result. While it's no B-minor Mass, I had my first performance of 'The Trumpet Shall Sound' on baroque trumpet at Spiritus Chamber Choir's performance of Messiah this past Easter, thanks to the ambitious vision of the choir's artistic director (and CPO chorusmaster) Tim Shantz. The practicality of an orchestral player developing this specific skill set is much greater here than it would be in a city full of specialists.

There are challenges though. Being a section of two with a very high workload means challenges of stamina, planning, avoiding injury, and keeping on top of sometimes six active programmes worth of music. It can feel like a victory to show up to work with the right instruments sometimes. We're lucky to have a very strong pool of extra trumpet players here in Calgary, we couldn't make things work without relying on them a great deal. Aside from the quantity of music, we're very often switching gears from pops, to big romantic orchestral repertoire, to anything else you can imagine. It's mentally challenging to be in the right gear when you need to be, and technically to have your chops ready to be sensitive and supple one day when they've had to be strong and bright beforehand. 

All this being said, I think there are unique opportunities to playing in an orchestra this size. In smaller or larger orchestras I'm sure there are different systemic pros and cons that I'm less acquainted with, but curious to know about. Even aside from size of orchestra and of the city, all the details of how an orchestra is structured and run have huge implications for the players!