A decade ago, Brian McWhorter’s kids were reaching the age when it was time to introduce them to that essential childhood ritual, The Nutcracker. But when the visionary University of Oregon prof and contemporary classical trumpet virtuoso looked up Eugene Ballet’s upcoming performance, he was shocked to discover that the dancers would be accompanied not by the traditional pit orchestra, but instead by a recording of Tchaikovsky’s colorful, classic score. The speculative finance-induced crash of 2007-8 had devastated the ballet’s budget along with the rest of the American economy, and with plenty of other fixed expenses — costumes, props, dancers — live music was just more collateral damage.
For a musician who’d long cherished the live musical experience, this was an outrage that couldn’t stand.
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This local crisis arrived at a moment when McWhorter was lamenting a larger, widespread problem in American classical music: the paucity of professional training opportunities for aspiring orchestra musicians, who have few chances to work consistently with professional classical musicians. Only a tiny number of slots open each year in American orchestras. For some, “years may go by where you might see only two or three auditions a year for a spot in a professional orchestra in the United States,” McWhorter says. “I’ve spent years of teaching in the academy seeing students graduate and still want to play in an orchestra, but are having a difficult time getting an opportunity in the field,” he says. “For me as an educator, the question is always: how can I get opportunities for my students to play with professionals?”
Hmm. Eugene Ballet needed an affordable orchestra. Local orchestral musicians needed a place to play orchestral music while learning. Crisis=Opportunity. What if Eugene Ballet’s crisis could help address both problems? With light bulb emoji not yet available in 2012, McWhorter called up EB’s leaders, including artistic director Toni Pimble. “What if I could put together an orchestra for the show?” Not for the following year’s performances. For the 2012 run that would begin in two months.
Pimble gulped. Who’d pay for it? McWhorter would raise the funds. Who’d perform? A mix of professional classical musicians in the Eugene area – fleshed out by some of those aspiring musicians who needed opportunities to perform and learn at the same time. Who’d conduct? “Uh, I will!” McWhorter replied, not mentioning that he’d never actually conducted a ballet orchestra before. As a former freelancer on New York’s tough contemporary music scene, “I was accustomed to saying yes to anything,” he chuckles today. “I had never even thought about conducting. I do like an irresponsibly large challenge.”
Pimble didn’t flinch. “I was pretty sure that if anybody could pull it off, Brian could. He’s not going to skimp on his sincerity and his dedication.”
With the essential assistance of his collaborator and former student Sarah Viens, then a Portland freelance musician, Orchestra Next took flight — and stuck the landing with all the grace of a veteran ballet dancer. “Brian and I both had experience in running and managing and performing in ensembles, and we know how the inner workings all go,” notes Viens, who’d been a music librarian, stage manager and personnel manager in previous jobs. “We made it up 100 percent!” McWhorter admits.
Lest anyone worry about students undercutting professionals in a tough market, McWhorter and Viens raised enough money to pay the student performers the going scale rate. Besides, “we weren’t replacing a professional orchestra,” Viens notes. “We were replacing a recording.”
Viens and McWhorter scrambled overtime putting that orchestra together, rehearsing with and without the dancers, and delivering that first series of successful performances, but exhaustion and anxiety melted away after those first shows. “I was floored how we were received when live music came back to the ballet,” Viens remembers. “I didn’t expect to hear how loud the audiences cheered when we were in the pit, and how much they expressed their appreciation. And the dancers too. All those late nights and super massive hustling we did to put [Orchestra Next] together — it was all was worth it. I realized: This works. This is why we do this.”
And it’s been doing it ever since, three or four productions per year now, drawing 12,000 or so audience members. Not just annual Nutcrackers but also many other dance performances: Scheherazade, Carmina Burana, McWhorter’s reorchestrated Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Great Gatsby with music by Wynton Marsalis, Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Stravinsky’s The Firebird. All this as resident company for Eugene Ballet (which McWhorter now serves as music director along with his UO teaching and Orchestra Next leadership), for various University of Oregon entities, and more–including gigs with Cirque Musica and at the 2016 world track and field championships (read Rachel Carnes’ ArtsWatch review here), where they played all the national anthems at the medal ceremony in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square.
During the pandemic, they recorded a virtual Nutcracker compiled from home recordings of each part made by each of the 55-member orchestra’s players, and created a podcast. They’ve even premiered and recorded a new ballet score commissioned from McWhorter’s fellow Portland native and Juilliard School alum, Kenji Bunch, The Snow Queen (read Rachael Carnes’ ArtsWatch review here).
And this month, ON not only accompanies its eleventh Nutcracker with Eugene Ballet, which runs through Christmas Eve, it also drops a lithe and lively new recording of Tchaikovsky’s immortal suite that started the whole thing. Made by day during last December’s Nutcracker run, followed by the nights’ live shows, it featured more than 77 local musicians – including 20 K-12 choral students from 12 different schools in the Eugene/Springfield area.
But as welcome as it is to cut CDs and bring live music back to Eugene Ballet, those performances aren’t Orchestra Next’s most valuable contribution to Oregon arts. Education is. ON is a training orchestra, one of the only such American entities that mixes accomplished professionals with student musicians (from UO and the community) in a real-world dance concert setting. Reminiscent of the mentor-apprentice arrangements that preceded academic institutionalization of music education, yet partly relying on university faculty, Orchestra Next is blazing — or maybe rediscovering — a trail in music education.
“To actually have a recurring experience where you learn hands-on, working side-by-side with masters of their art and craft, and get paid for the work you do,” says ON co-founder, general manager and principal trumpet Viens, who’s also now principal trumpet of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, “I can’t think of any other place in the profession where this is the model.”
McWhorter had enjoyed working with a couple of training orchestras earlier in his career, but knew of none that mixed students and professionals and also accompanied dance. Viens, a former student of his at UO, and before that a member of a youth orchestra in her hometown of Tacoma, had also long wondered whether it might be possible to put together an orchestra that combined professional and student players. The ballet world already has something like this, Pimble notes–with “aspirants,” student dancers who work alongside professional company members. How can aspiring orchestra musicians keep developing until they can compete for one?
Eugene Ballet provided an ideal opportunity, and Orchestra Next provides a successful model. Student applicants audition at no charge via private YouTube channels, playing five assigned excerpts of classics. The principals review the videos and select each year’s team and a few alternates. Students mostly hail from Eugene, Salem and the Portland area, and typically tend to be recent college graduates — the average age is around 23 — but some can be community members whose earlier playing days are long behind them, while others are still in high school. Turnover is high as students cycle through the program; with few exceptions, it’s a new Orchestra Next each year.
To fill the principal chairs in each section, McWhorter and Viens enlisted top professionals in the area — from the University of Oregon, from Eugene Symphony and other orchestras. Principal players are chosen not just for their expertise on their instruments but also how well they work with students. “We just let them mentor in any way they want,” McWhorter explains. “We can provide rehearsals and shows. Occasionally we get rooms at [Eugene’s] Hult Center [for the Performing Arts] where a section can work. Teaching is less didactic lecture and more ‘sit next to my body and feel how it feels to play this music better than you can now.’ That kind of mentorship is what we’ve all been after when we study music.”
But it’s increasingly rare in American classical music. “Around the country, there are very few models like this,” Viens says. “Often when people go to learn music today, they go to a classroom full of students and one teacher. Orchestra Next has many mentors and apprentices. Everyone learns from everyone else.”
Student musicians appreciate the collaborative learning environment. “The biggest difference between Orchestra Next and any other orchestra I’ve been in is the level of collaboration,” says ON violinist Erika Parisien, who’s played in both University of Oregon and other professional orchestras. “In general, we’re kind of silent and listening to the conductor, doing what we’re told, but Orchestra Next feels more collaborative. Part of it is the openness of the way Brian conducts and leads the orchestra. A lot of the professional musicians are also my colleagues at the UO. Multiple professional musicians chime in during rehearsal and give suggestions and the conductor will ask us what we think. Everyone has a lot to say.”
Many of the professional players are educators themselves. “The pro players love playing with students because of the energy they bring,” Viens explains, “and the students get to have the experience of sitting next to professionals in an orchestra, which is very different than sitting next to other students. It’s not this abstracted environment like a university. You learn so much faster to be doing it in real live productions. When you work one-on-one alongside someone who’s a master at their craft, you learn specialized information. Your ears hear everything — all the little nuances you can’t catch [otherwise]. Something like how loud I’d want my second trumpet to play is hard to describe to a student unless I’m sitting right next to you. Second trumpets are the unsung heroes of any symphony orchestra. If the principal trumpet has the right support, that makes the principal’s tough job so much easier.”
Or take reeds. Non reed players may not realize just how much time, effort and expertise goes into making the reeds that make instruments like the oboe sound sweet — or not. Pros will often bring their reeds and knives with them, and ON’s student musicians can glean valuable tips on proper scraping technique and more.
Then there are lessons in professional etiquette. Anyone who’s heard a college or high school orchestra perform has probably heard the players practicing tricky passages onstage, after the audience has filed in but before the conductor comes out. In pit orchestras like Orchestra Next, Viens says, “we can tell students, ‘we keep the volume down in the pit with rehearsals.’”
Maybe most importantly, “we have to learn how to communicate” with fellow musicians,” Viens says. “We have to be efficient and respectful but everyone also has expectations of it being high quality, and because music is such a personal art form, how do you work with other professionals in a respectful way that doesn’t make people mad? How do you learn to ask someone to do something differently — play sharper or flatter, louder or softer here — in a way that’s respectful and isn’t going to make someone feel more criticized? How can you phrase suggestions in a way that’s positive and encouraging without talking down to them? How do you graciously receive questions or suggestions?”
ON also offers some students the chance to help in administration, learning from the inside what it really takes to run an orchestra. “You can take all the arts admin classes in the world and you still won’t get that hands-on view of this is how it really works,” Viens says.
They also benefit from performing outside the university environment. “This is a real-world event that students become a part of,” Viens says. “In schools, you can rehearse six or eight weeks for a concert. But we have two rehearsals of Nutcracker — it’s a much more honest representation of a typical professional situation.”
Even between those two rehearsals, “the growth rate is phenomenal,” McWhorter says. ON offers students opportunities to see how professionals react in tricky situations. “If something went wrong on stage, how do you recover and how quickly?” Viens notes.
That real-life setting demands extra urgency that dramatically accelerates students’ learning curve. “If you miss an entrance, you could potentially hurt a dancer,” McWhorter says.
“When you trust students in an educational environment that has high stakes, when you give them the green light to bring their excellence to it, when you have a relationship of trust that we’re all working on this together collaboratively, I’m so impressed at what happens.”
One special advantage offered by Nutcracker performances is the fact that, unlike most orchestra programs–which might happen once (with the other Eugene Orchestras) or at most thrice (with the Oregon Symphony)-Eugene Ballet this year offers seven shows during its Eugene run. “Ballet is one of those rare forms in classical arts where we do repeat shows,” McWhorter notes. After multiple shows and rehearsals, by the last performance the student musicians are “more comfortable, having more fun enjoying music making more.” At first they’re worried most about “playing the right notes or in tune or the same articulation as everyone else. Musicians agree that those are all important, but the audience is there to hear spontaneity and joy.”
Orchestra Next has now performed Nutcracker with EB more than 50 times. “The Nutcracker truly is a beautiful score, with lots of challenging moments for an orchestra within that score,” Pimble explains. “That experience is valuable to a training orchestra.”
And it happens every year. “Orchestral musicians commune every year around The Nutcracker,“ McWhorter notes. “We play The Nutcracker more than ‘Happy Birthday.’ It’s this shared language — our folk music. And the repetition makes a unique training opportunity. There’s something about doing repetitive shows that provides a different kind of value and lets the important stuff rise to the top.”
Parisien has reaped the benefits of repetition. One of the rare student musicians who’s played multiple (seven) seasons with ON, she arrived as a high school junior and continued in the orchestra’s violin section after matriculating to the UO, where she also played in student orchestras and took courses from some of the faculty members who also serve as ON principal players.
“I could see my own personal growth in playing,” she recalls. “When I was in high school, I had to focus on getting the notes and rhythms, and now, with playing the same piece over and over again, I can focus on communicating the music and blending my sound.”
Playing in the pit instead of onstage also eases newbie nerves. With the audience’s attention focused on the dancers, rather than the musicians as at a straight orchestra concert, “I do think it’s less pressure,” says Parisien. “People are enjoying listening to us, but they came to watch the ballet, so I can focus on my sound rather than how I look, what does my bow arm look like now?”
The irrepressible McWhorter cracks jokes, encourages everyone to wear “Christmas bling,” and in general defuses tension. “He focuses on detail but also approaches it with a great sense of humor,” Pimble says. “He’s a born entertainer, and it shows in the way he encourages the orchestra to do their best.”
“Orchestra Next helped develop my musicality a lot within an orchestra,” Parisien says. “Brian is so encouraging about having fun, and channeling that fun energy through music. In a school orchestra, it can be hard to feel that way, whereas at Orchestra Next, everyone wants to be there and to have fun.”
Finally, accompanying live dance provides unique educational value by stretching the musicians — and, for that matter, the dancers, who have to adjust to live musicians instead of a recording — to accommodate a multi-media collaborative environment. “At the very basic level of having experience of playing in a pit orchestra and collaborating with another form of art,” says Parisien, “other than with ballet and opera, it’s hard to gain that opportunity as an orchestral music student in school.”
McWhorter, who as conductor serves as intermediary between what’s happening onstage and the music making in the pit, must react to many moving pieces in real time — sets, lights, dancer entrances and exits — and adjust tempos and more, maybe accommodating a substitute dancer’s needs. The student musicians must then respond — and that’s a skill much harder to learn in the hothouse environment of a school or college orchestra concert.
“Every time we perform Nutcracker, it’s a little bit different, depending on who’s playing the main roles,” McWhorter says. “The musicians know I need to adapt to what’s happening onstage, and they’re very responsive to that. If the music is really swinging, the women on stage will feel good, but if it’s not swinging, they will not feel carried by the music, and that’s what we aim for — the most important thing when playing for dance.”
Even though McWhorter is an experienced pro with the highest classical music credentials, “I have learned more about music with this band than anything prior, and working with dance is a huge part of it. I am way more humbled by music now, having seen dancers work with it. It feels like that’s what music is for.”
Meanwhile, Orchestra Next versatile musicians, who are likelier to find jobs in a competitive field if they’re able to excel in varied orchestral settings, are learning the same lessons — much earlier in their careers than he did.
While the annual Nutcracker shows seem likely to remain ON’s central gig, the orchestra continues to evolve, with recordings (a rarity among orchestras these days), a small rentable recording studio in its office in Eugene’s Midtown Arts Center, performances of new and old music, and more, including a major project with the ballet to be unveiled next year. Its staff (McWhorter, Viens, and a couple of assistants) and budget ($150,000) remain relatively modest — in contrast with its ambitions.
“We want to take part in big events where music can help elevate those events but not necessarily be the centerpiece,” McWhorter explains. “We’re a collaborative orchestra. We’re not trying to compete with other orchestras, but add cultural capital to other arts events. We have our own culture: we’re still small, but multi dimensional. After eleven years, its well established, with a spirit of its own, a life of its own.”
After a decade, Orchestra Next’s Nutcracker shows are already seeding new, future students, as happened when Parisien saw the show in high school and signed up. ON board member and ArtsWatch contributor Amy Adams remembers a recent EB performance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella.
“Between scenes 1 and 2 of Act III there was a blackout, and the orchestra was playing. With no dancers on stage, the only spotlight was on conductor Brian McWhorter. A little girl in an aisle seat, around 7 or 8 years old, all dressed up, was copying his gestures, and I mean grandly — big sweeping arm motions, circles, both hands. The women in front of me nudged each other and whispered. The little girl turned and put her hands out, downward…as if saying ‘ssshhh, piano, piano.’”
Parisien, who’s graduating from UO this year and leaving Eugene and ON, remembers a poignant moment at last year’s concerts, when one of the many kiddos showed up dressed up in seasonal costumes, perhaps purchased in the lobby. Normally, their eyes are fixed on stage, watching the colorful dancers twirl. This time, though, she noticed one little girl in the front row ignoring the onstage action. Instead, she was gazing down into the orchestra pit, riveted. “After the harp solo in ‘Waltz of the Flowers,’ she gasped and clapped,” Parisien recalls. “I thought, ‘This is why I’m doing this! Other children and adults will see the orchestra, just like I did, and want to do it, too.”
Eugene Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker with Orchestra Next runs through Dec. 24 at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets. Orchestra Next’s recording of The Nutcracker is available on all streaming platforms as well as a CD for sale in the lobby of the Hult Center during the run as well as at Eugene’s House of Records.