Oregon Cultural Trust

Music ninja: Oregon Symphony Principal Librarian Joy Fabos describes how the orchestra’s library is a huge funnel

Discussing the finer details of orchestra library maintenance, from the legalities of part rentals to the need for librarians to be musically well-educated.

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Oregon Symphony Principal Librarian Joy Fabos. Photo by James Bash.
Oregon Symphony Principal Librarian Joy Fabos. Photo by James Bash.

Before a piece is performed at the Oregon Symphony, you may have noticed the lady who brings the orchestral score and places it on the conductor’s stand. That person is often Joy Fabos, the Principal Librarian of the Oregon Symphony. Placing the score on the conductor’s stand is just one part of a multi-faceted job that mostly takes place behind the scenes but is absolutely essential for major orchestras like the Oregon Symphony. 

Describing her job as “music ninja,” Fabos and her librarian associates have offices on the fourth floor of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It’s a tidy space, demarcated by desks topped by computer monitors, filing cabinets, and specially designed library shelving.

“We have about 2600 titles,” said Fabos. “That is 2600 sets of music in our catalog. We have more scores than that. We have scores for pieces that we have performed but can’t own. So, if they are not in the public domain, we can’t own the parts. We have to rent them. But we may be able to own the conductor’s score as reference.” 

Fabos explained that conductors often mark up the score, and those markings, in pencil, are not erased, but if a conductor puts in tiny flags and post-it notes, the librarians have to remove those.

Sharing the score

What about renting a score and parts to another orchestra that needs it?

“We can’t rent parts that we own to other orchestras,” answered Fabos. “If we have a set, it is full of Oregon Symphony markings, and we don’t want those markings to be changed. We can send scanned copies of bowings to youth orchestras and educational institutions, so that the youth orchestra doesn’t have to invent the bowings. They can use our reference materials for that. We don’t have the staff to be a loaning library. Our job is designed to just serve the Oregon Symphony.”

Recently the orchestra played Louise Farrenc’s Concert Overture No. 1 for the first time.  To find that piece, Fabos turned to Zinfonia, a music publisher portal, which has a nifty search engine. It took less than a minute for Fabos to find that the Farrenc was available through Edition Peters.

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But not all music is available to be searched in this way. Composers like Andy Akiho and Timo Andres are self-published, and they are not yet listed in Zinfonia. There is a monetary fee to have your piece included in Zinfonia, and that is a gating factor that publishing companies typically cover.

For newer pieces, like Andres’ The Blind Banister (read our interview with the composer here), Fabos may have to coordinate things with other orchestras.

“There’s an orchestra in Sweden performing the Andres’ piece right after us,” explained Fabos. “Timo put us in contact with the librarian there. So I just sent her scans of the string parts and the score so that she can start preparing.”

For pieces the Oregon Symphony rents, bow markings and clues from other professional orchestras are left in place as a starting/reference point for other professional orchestras. 

“For the upcoming performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony,” said Fabos, “we have parts that have been marked by the Luxembourg Philharmonic. Our principals have reviewed their bowings and pretty much agreed with them.”

Then there are variations on a rental theme, so to speak.

“Sometimes we have a permanent loan set,” said Fabos. “We have it in our catalogue, but we do have to contact the publisher and get permission and a rental agreement for these cases, but we can use the set we have on hand.” 

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For works that the Oregon Symphony has commissioned, there still may be restrictions.

“Commissioned works vary, according to their contracts,” said Fabos, “Sometimes we have the right to perform the piece, but we don’t own the piece.”

Keeping track

To keep track of the orchestra’s catalogue, Fabos uses an Excel spreadsheet with lots of columns that identify the catalogue number, composer, title, set (for multiple sets), publisher, performance set or archival set, editor (for orchestration or an arrangement), and notes. It’s a comprehensive masterpiece that Fabos can read like a score of music. 

Then there’s the nitty gritty of looking at scores and orchestral parts.

“A big part of our job is to catch anything that would disrupt rehearsal,” she explained. “If, for example, we have certain parts, and a visiting conductor is working off a different score and is married to those markings, then we have to make them match. That might mean taking the score home and putting in the measure numbers.  Or the conductor’s score might have measure numbers, and then we have to put measure numbers in the parts. We need the rehearsal indications to match. Sometimes the performance materials don’t match, because there are small inconsistencies. We have to catch and fix those instances.”

If bowings need to be added to parts, Fabos also coordinates that effort. 

“We have a handful of bow-markers, who come and take the parts home and do the bowings for us,” she explained. “There’s no way to speed up this work. It might take five or ten hours to put all of the bow markings into one section – like the cello section for example – of a Mahler symphony. It might take fifty hours to mark the bowings for a big Mahler symphony. The bow markers are professional musicians. Everyone needs to have professional music experience to work in this library. You can’t hire someone from a temp service to do it.”

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Musician-librarians

Fabos didn’t set out to become an orchestra librarian as a career goal. She went to Northwestern for her undergraduate degrees in violin performance and music education. It was a serendipitous event that got her into the field.

“I was thinking about going to graduate school in violin performance,” said Fabos, “and I was studying with my teacher Carol Sindell. I had been teaching in the public school system, but I decided to focus on playing more. Carol’s phone rang one time in the middle of our lesson. It was Rob Olivia, who was the first professional librarian of the Oregon Symphony. Before they hired him, they had musicians in the orchestra doing the job. His assistant just quit, and he was looking for someone. Carol almost literally handed me the phone. She thought it would be a great part-time job while I was getting ready for graduate school. So, it was me and another woman who learned on the job and helped Rob as we went along. It turned out that I really liked the job. I ended up being the assistant librarian for about three years under Rob.“

Then came stints in which Fabos served as the librarian for the Oregon Ballet Theatre and Portland Opera. She also spent a year as the librarian of Honolulu Symphony. In the meantime, she freelanced as a violinist at festivals and other orchestras. But she returned to Portland as the Principal Librarian and is now in her fifteenth year with the orchestra. 

During the pandemic Fabos earned a Masters of Science in Information Studies – the long name for a librarian’s degree – from Syracuse University. Through the OSO, she is a member of the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA), which has over 300 performance organizations around the world, represented by more than 450 librarians. 

Fabos has a team that includes Assistant Principal Librarian Kat Thompson and assistant librarians Cael Farrow and Adaiha MacAdam-Somer who share a part-time role. The staff helps to cover the day and night aspects of the librarian’s duties. One librarian must be available for each orchestral service, including rehearsals. They set up parts at the top of rehearsals and shows. So the job has day and night hours, concert duty, research and preparation, customer service – the musicians and colleagues like the orchestra manager who needs to know the instrumentation of each piece so that the right musicians are hired – and the scanning and printing of pdfs (prevalent in pops arrangements).

“We are a big funnel,” remarked Fabos. “All the information and programming and everything has to be collected here before it goes out to the musicians. Everything comes through us. So every day is different. That’s something that I love about this job.”

Oregon Symphony Principal Librarian Joy Fabos. Photo by James Bash.
Photo by James Bash.

Waxing rhapsodic

Postscript: I contacted Principal Cellist Nancy Ives to get a musician’s take on the importance of the librarian’s job. Here is what she replied:

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 I’m delighted to wax rhapsodic on this subject! Oregon Symphony musicians are only able to power through the dozens of pieces of music we perform each month thanks to the support of the orchestra library. There is an actual collection of parts and scores, of course, which has to be maintained and organized, and the rest of the materials we need come from many different sources and arrive in a variety of conditions — and it all needs to be organized into folders, often on a tight schedule. Such a huge task! Plus, when there’s a problem with the music or something that needs to be fixed, like a problematical page turn or a part that came in the wrong key, the library leaps into action to solve the problem while we continue rehearsing. To do all of this at such a high professional level takes time and expertise we simply don’t have. Joy and her team in the library combine deep knowledge of music and musical materials with gracious dedication to serving our needs. Orchestra librarians are the hidden heroes of the orchestra — and Joy is a treasure!

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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