Some things must never be said.
And, other things must never be done.
After last night’s performance of the Erie Chamber Orchestra, I can contain myself no longer. Having been urged to keep quiet about everything until now, it is time. I must speak.
I come to you as the principal cellist of the orchestra whose inception took place in the mind of one Bruce Morton Wright. An Erie boy, raised by faithful parents, he grew to express musical talent early on – earning enrollment at our local Mercyhurst College as a music major, on tenor sax. After completing his degree and spending several years “playing out” at various jazz clubs, he found himself in the audience of a symphony orchestra. As he sat, listening, Bruce had an epiphany.
I can remember him telling us about it.
Bruce could always tell you about it. The man had stories, each more vivid and hilarious than the last. This one was fairly straightforward; as he sat there, in the audience, the thought occurred to him: “I could do this. I could start an orchestra.”
Never daunted, that is exactly what he did. Bruce traveled, first to Vienna, Austria and, from there, to Colombia, South America, to study conducting and gain experience. Upon his return to the states in the late 1970s, he and his wife Merja came home to Erie to establish his first orchestra. And – ever the maverick – the new maestro took his newly formed ensemble one step beyond the norm; Bruce vowed to make his performances available to anyone who wanted or needed to hear them. No admission charge. None.
Nearly 40 years hence, through a couple incarnations ( originally named the Erie Bayfront Orchestra, housed at a local urban center and, in its second decade, enjoying a CNN special feature interview broadcast world wide), Bruce’s orchestra still breathes life into the works of the greatest composers, living and dead. And, March 3rd’s concert was shimmering testament. We performed the Barber Adagio, Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, and – incredibly – the entire Vivaldi Four Seasons with none other than the brilliant Buffalo Philharmonic Concertmaster, Dennis Kim, as leading soloist. And, we did THAT in a 15 minute Tutti read and one 90 minute rehearsal.
N.o.b.o.d.y. does that.
The Erie Philharmonic doesn’t do that. I would wager that even a top ten tier orchestra doesn’t put Vivaldi’s Four Seasons out to the public on one rehearsal.
If you were in our audience, you heard the outcome. Thank you, so very much, for coming.
Now, here’s the ugly part.
Though the ECO was being sustained by both the Musician’s Trust Fund and the generous endowment of one Clarence Byers, about twenty years ago Bruce entered into an agreement with Gannon University. Founded by Catholic Bishop John Mark Gannon, it would become the region’s primary science and technology institution, attracting a long history of pre med students( in a partnership with Hahnemann Medical School) and an ever increasing multitude of potential engineers of every persuasion, many of them foreign students. Gannon agreed to subsidize the orchestra.
From Gannon Bruce commanded comparatively little by way of compensation, and received for his musicians not a penny. As for staff, well, Bruce was everything: musical director, baton, librarian, publicity agent, and stage crew. Many a conversation in trusted confidence occurred after rehearsal, as Bruce stocked chairs and stands into their proper storage. As a single, self supporting woman teaching music in the public schools, I had no more valued an advisor or counsel than that of my chamber orchestra maestro.
In 2011, Bruce succumbed to multiple myeloma. We grieved, deeply. But, in keeping with his vision, we pressed on; hiring a new musical director, as well as a general manager (knowing full well that Bruce could never truly be replaced), we never missed a beat. By fall, we were ready with our season. And, we thrived; our repertoire expanded, and our audience burgeoned to 800+, creating a lovely problem: we needed a performance space large enough to accommodate our audience!
Therewith the following six years.
According to the story we were given, in the fall of 2017 Gannon discovered that they could no longer support us financially. We aren’t entirely sure when, as an institution, they came to this conclusion; we only know that the news came to us, as a professional organization, when we read about it in the local paper.
Yes. Forty years of collective professional commitment and artistry, and we received the equivalent of that which a parent experiences when he/she first hears of a child’s death on the televised news.
Not a single one of our section principals was consulted. Our newest Maestro, Bradley Thachuk – also totally ignored. We were never even apprised of the ongoing financial concerns, yea the threat, of dissolution as it emerged; instead, we found out by reading the published announcement that our beloved orchestra would fold at the end of the season.
This act, on the part of Gannon University, was unconscionable.
Not only does it reflect badly on Gannon’s management but, far worse: their action represents a sin of omission, a complete abdication of the precepts upon which they, as a Catholic institution, were founded. What they did to us was callous, low class, and professionally unforgiveable.
Had any number of the orchestra’s membership been contacted with any degree of warning, we could have done several things. We could have set about to solicit regional support; we could have appealed publicly, via the news media; we could have prepared for the worst, in order to save our orchestra.
Instead, we were left high and dry, offered only the option of accepting the venture created by the one person Gannon contacted, allegedly on our behalf: our former general manager, who now worked for another orchestra!
Gannon actually promised our remaining funds to this individual, who created a chamber series (quartets/trios, et al) and went public about his plan. The only problem with this series is: the vast majority of Erie Chamber Orchestra members, both recent and of longest standing, are set to be displaced by this venture, which will only be utilizing contracted members of the other orchestra. At last count, there were only a handful ( I count eleven) of Erie Chamber orchestral musicians (total membership: 40+ ) holding contracts with the other orchestra.
I am among those displaced.
As fifteen years’ principal cellist with the Erie Chamber Orchestra, and member since 1986, I performed cello continuo last evening to Buffalo Philharmonic Concertmaster Dennis Kim’s Vivaldi. As of April 29th, 2018, I and dozens of others are officially without a position in a professional orchestra.
The blogosphere is world wide. You, dear readers, are hearing this story because it is a.) true; b.) worthy of your ears, and c.) of critical importance to the entire artistic community. We cannot let our educational institutions behave like hostile corporations. We cannot permit them to play with lives as if these are mere pawns on the chessboard of their own, self serving interests. And, we must preserve those entities which consistently produce the beauty and truth which the highest art embodies.
We need to start, from scratch. We need a new name, the funds to pay a conductor, plus enough to cover basic musician’s wage and advertising. Yes; we are already taking the steps to regroup. If/when we re-emerge, we hope to have your name proudly attached to those who care most about the ideals we bring to life. We hope for your support.
We have never asked much. Four rehearsals, plus performance, plus the unlimited number of hours in private practice preparation for a paycheck not exceeding $250 per musician. That is a pauper’s wage, in our time. If you were to step up to help us, our love for you would grow with every breath.
And, Bruce Morton Wright, from his spirit, would thank you.
© 3/4/18 Ruth Ann Scanzillo – Principal cellist, ERIE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA. Erie PA. PLEASE, SHARE LIBERALLY, WITH CREDIT TO THE AUTHOR, WHO WRITES ON BEHALF OF MARIAN BYARD, JAMES PEARSON, NICOLE MACPHERSON, GEOFFREY WANDS, BRIAN HANNAH, ERIK SUNDET, MEGAN RAINBOW, BRIAN WALNICKI, TED SMELTZ, MERJA WRIGHT, ANNA ROSE WELCH, CARL LAM, ANDREW SEIGEL, LAURA NELSON, JENNIFER DAUB ASHBAUGH, MICHELE NAPOLITAN, MAUREEN CONLON-DOROSH, HILARY PHILIPP, CARRIE BORLAND, KENT TUCKER, SLOAN LADWIG, HOWARD P. LYON, LOUIS NICOLIA, AND THE REST OF THE WONDERFUL, EQUALLY QUALIFIED PROFESSIONALS WHO FILL THE REMAINING SEATS OF THE ERIE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA.