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Ship-jumping on the rise?

0 Robert Levine

John von Rhein had a rather odd column in the Chicago Tribune today on principal players moving around:

The recent news that Mathieu Dufour, principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1999, has also accepted that position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, apparently on a trial basis, for the 2009-10 season, got me thinking about what it no longer means to be a first-chair player at a major orchestra.

I am not ascribing any narrow self-interest to Dufour, a superb flutist who has served with distinction as CSO section leader and soloist. His decade in Chicago has been a golden age for the CSO’s woodwind choir.

With that in mind, the French-trained flutist could well decide to remain with the CSO at the end of his trial period next spring, depending on how good a fit he turns out to be in L.A. (Several e-mails requesting comment from Dufour, who is touring Europe with the CSO, were not answered.)

But it does make me wonder if careerism isn’t trumping institutional loyalty among some principal musicians in some quarters of today’s symphonic world.

Star players seem to be jumping from orchestra to orchestra more casually, and more often, barely sticking around long enough to make a lasting imprint on their ensembles. And that’s a pity.

What’s he talking about? Has there really been more instability in the principal ranks of America’s major orchestras than in the Golden Past?

It’s sure not the case in Milwaukee (but I tend to forget that we’re not always considered a “major orchestra” by those who live in the First or Second or Third or Fourth City). The only positions in which there’ve been more than two principals during my 21-season tenure here have been concertmaster (3), principal cello (3), principal flute (3) and tuba (3). Of those four positions, three had one turnover each caused by a disability.

I don’t think orchestra musicians are any less “careerist” or less subject to the pull of institutional loyalty than any other group of highly trained workers. But we do tend to stay put, especially after a certain age, if only because the system is set up in such a way as to making moving around quite difficult, for “stars” or anyone else.

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