Orchestra Spotlight:
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

An Interview With Donald Plumb, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Committee Chair

 Donald Plumb, ESO 2nd Horn and Orchestra Committee Chair Donald Plumb, ESO 2nd Horn and Orchestra Committee Chair, pictured here with his Wagner tuba. (click to enlarge)

Second Horn player, Donald Plumb, has been a member of the Edmonton Symphony since 1973. He currently serves as the elected orchestra committee chair along with serving on the ESO Board of Directors as one of the persons elected by the musicians.

Polyphonic.org Senior Editor & Research Principal, Drew McManus, spoke with Donald over the telephone about how the musicians are adjusting to recent changes in artistic leadership and playing an increased role in organizational governance.

Drew McManus: What is the average tenure for ESO players?
Donald Plumb: I would guess the average tenure here is higher than the average in other Canadian ensembles. As a result, we don’t have a lot of turnover, so one might call us a destination ensemble. Part of that low turnover may be due to geography; simply put, it’s harder to travel to other cities to take an audition. Edmonton is also a nice place to live, despite its latitude. There will be a big turnover in the next ten years as players retire.

Since a number of us have been around for so long, we know the community well and can give [the artistic administration] insight on what sort of programming we should offer the community.

Drew McManus: What sort of changes have you noticed throughout the organization since the arrival of your music director in the 2005-2006 season?
Donald Plumb: The biggest change is we now have clear artistic leadership. We went through a phase during the music director search with an artistic committee programming, which was somewhat generic. Since Mr. Eddins arrived, we have more of an individualistic artistic vision.

We still have five players that sit on an artistic advisory committee and they have a very cooperative relationship with Mr. Eddins and our Artistic Administrator, Rob McAlear. I would say that it is very helpful to have that artistic input within the organization.

Mr. Eddins is definitely not a stuffy, old-school conductor. “[Mr. Eddins] is definitely not a stuffy, old-school conductor.” – Donald Plumb (click to enlarge)

Mr. Eddins doesn’t talk to the audience at all concerts but when he does, it is well placed and equally well received. He is definitely not a stuffy, old-school conductor. He has an infectious personality and he is so enthusiastic about what he does and all of that comes across to the listener.

Of course, what really counts is substantive music making, and I think the balance between that and accessibility is good with Mr. Eddins. I think the concerts are truly exciting for the audience and the musicians enjoy being a part of that.

One of the risks you run into with so many long term players is repetition of repertoire. I think Mr. Eddins brings new perspectives to standard repertoire that offers us a way to work against the routine of repetition.

Drew McManus: What sort of artistic direction do you think the organization is moving?
Donald Plumb: Not surprisingly, we are doing more American repertoire than we’ve done in the past and even though we have always maintained a very strong commitment to Canadian works, including Canadian composers in residence, I have thought that our programming of U.S. composers has been a little lacking. Much of the music we’ve been performing since Mr. Eddins’ arrival is quite accessible, which I think helps audiences accept unfamiliar repertoire.

if we can grow our endowment fund large enough I think we would see some more players added to the core sooner than later. "I trust that various levels of government will always support the operations of orchestras to some extent...” – Donald Plumb (click to enlarge)

Hopefully, we will build a level of trust among the audience that will bring them into the hall confident that they will enjoy whatever we are playing even if they do not know the repertoire by name. Bill Eddins is particularly fond of Mozart. Our size orchestra and the responsive acoustics of the concert hall are well suited to Mozart. Bill has some interesting ideas for using internet technology and recordings to make the ESO more widely known. One benefit would be attracting more candidates for auditions.

Drew McManus: Where do you think the organization is financially?
Donald Plumb: We are fortunate to be in much better shape than some other Canadian orchestras. Even though we are doing well financially right now, I don’t think we’ll increase the number of core players above our current 56 in the near future, although I know we would be very happy if we had more strings. It would not be fiscally prudent to commit to expansion until it can be sustained indefinitely by a larger endowment fund. The acoustics of the Francis Winspear Centre for Music are so superior that full-size orchestra forces may never be needed to produce significant volume, but some more strings would warm the tone.

Drew McManus: Do you think Edmonton, and Canadian orchestra in general, will need to rely more on endowments as opposed to government support in the next 5-10 years?
Donald Plumb: I trust that various levels of government will always support the operations of orchestras to some extent, but significant philanthropic or corporate contributions to endowments are needed to grow orchestra organizations. We may be at a disadvantage in private or corporate fundraising of an inaccurate perception that we are sufficiently supported by government granting agencies alone.

 The Francis Winspear concert hall from the player’s perspective. The Francis Winspear concert hall from the player’s perspective. (click to enlarge)

Bill Eddins has emphasized the importance of building an endowment fund but our priority has, of necessity, been to eliminate the debt.

Drew McManus: The organization experienced a rough work stoppage in 2002, what sort of changes have taken place since then?
Donald Plumb:That unpleasant work stoppage taught us all that dialogue would have to be an ongoing component of organization health. Fundamental to settling the strike was creation of a five-person governance review committee with two nominees from the symphony society, two from the Edmonton Musicians’ Association, chaired by an arbitration lawyer acceptable to both sides.

Their in-depth study resulted in a report that recommended ways that we musicians could have significant influence within the organization. The ES Society readily accepted the concept of musician participation in governance. We musicians now elect three persons to the 18 person society board of directors. These are not just delegates, but full members and are not limited to musicians; they could be someone from the community that we feel would be an asset on the board. Another innovation is that musicians comprise a majority of persons – three out of five – on the board of directors nominating committee.

Other outcomes of the new governance model are is that musicians were very involved in the search for a new music director and we take part in a committee that reviews our conducting staff during their respective contract renewals.

 I know we received a lot of attention because of the strike but I don’t know how much people realize how healthy we are now as a result of what came out of those events “We have just extended our Agreement for four more years. This speaks to a mutual vote of confidence in the stability of the organization.” – Donald Plumb (click to enlarge)

I think we now have a much better culture of internal communication and I think we have a better idea of our mutual interests and shared sense of purpose. I know we received a lot of attention because of the strike, bad news travels fast, but I don’t know how much people realize how healthy we are now as a result of what came out of those events. I am not suggesting that one should go on strike to obtain similar outcomes, but a strike is a glimpse into the abyss that shows you there must be better ways to do things.

We have just extended our Agreement for four more years. This speaks to a mutual vote of confidence in the stability of the organization.

Drew McManus: What are some differences you think exist between being a musician in a Canadian orchestra as opposed to a U.S. ensemble?
Donald Plumb: My experience is limited to the Canadian scene. Perhaps the much larger number of orchestras in the USA creates more opportunities for career moves in increments up the ranks. There may be a greater sense of comradeship in being part of a larger musician community. In large population centers of the US, several orchestras might compete for the same classical music audience. This could be challenging but also stimulate an ensemble to stand out.

Another difference may be that we are one of a few Canadian orchestras where musicians are classified as self-employed contractors for income tax purposes. More professional expenses are deductible, but we do not qualify for employment insurance for 11 weeks in the summer without ESO income. This means we must budget our annual income for that interval without paychecks.

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