Q & A: MET Orchestra Members Barbara Jöstlein Currie & Julia Bruskin on the Orchestra’s Spotlight Series & the Current State of OrganizationBy Chris Ruel
The MET Orchestra, one of the greatest in the world, is in jeopardy.
Read that again. The MET Orchestra, one of the greatest in the world, is in jeopardy.
That’s not just an opinion. As reported in multiple news outlets, including this one, none other than the iconic conductor, Maestro Riccardo Muti, unequivocally stated just that.
In his letter dated January 10 and addressed to the “Concerned Citizens and Supporters of the Arts,” Muti wrote: “The Met, its Orchestra, along with its artistic team and technical crews are a heritage of humanity. The artistic world is in disbelief that the very existence of a great Orchestra like the Met’s could be in danger and even at the risk of disappearing.”
OperaWire spoke with two members of the famed Orchestra: fourth horn and Head of Communications & Co-head of Programming for MET Orchestra Musicians, Barbara Jöstlein Currie, and cellist Julia Bruskin. The conversation focused on the organization’s Spotlight Series, which continues on Sunday, January 17 at 3:00 p.m. EST with “Warmth from Other Suns,” hosted by famed bass-baritone Eric Owens.
Over the course of the discussion, the pain felt by the two members was palpable. Read this quote by Jöstlein Currie when asked if members of the Orchestra were leaving:
“Many people are going to school looking for career changes. I mean, I can think of three or four right now just off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s more. Members are taking classes at universities to do something different—not even in music and shoring up skills as a backup because they have time.”
Career changes “not even in music…”
How many members have left the New York Metropolitan Area? Jöstlein Currie states the figure is around 30%.
MET Orchestra members are pulling the fire alarm. Muti is pulling the fire alarm.
Muti, earlier in his letter, puts what’s at stake this way: “Without music and the musicians who bring it to life, civil society is doomed to spiritual poverty and barbarism. Music is not entertainment, but rather, an essential food for the mind and soul. Music is not entertainment, but rather, an essential food for the mind and soul.” (Emphasis mine.)
On January 17, the musicians from the MET Orchestra put on their third concert in the Spotlight Series. The program includes sections from the beloved “Magic Flute,” arranged for flute and cello by Eric Stephenson, “Warmth from Other Suns,” by Sphinx Organization composer Carlos Simon, and “Valencia” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw. The concert also features music by Delibes, Rossini, and Schubert. Following the prerecorded performance, there will be a live Q&A.
MET Orchestra principal flute, Chelsea Knox; principal oboe, Elaine Douvas; cellist Julia Bruskin; and pianist Bryan Wagorn join Owens for the event.
What follows is an in-depth conversation about the Series, sprinkled with heartbreak and hope. When the great gold curtain opens once more, it is the desire of many around the world that the sound rising from the pit is one of triumph and utter joy.
OperaWire: Let’s start by discussing how the Spotlight Series originated.
Julia Bruskin: I’m actually going to start back before the pandemic. We had just begun what is called an artistic advisory committee at the Met where members of the Orchestra, the Chorus, and stage directors elect one of their own to become part of a committee that would meet regularly and offer artistic thoughts to the music director and management, advising them about how we think things could be done better.
Something that came out of this was the idea was to do a chamber music series again. The MET Orchestra had a Chamber Series at Carnegie Hall during James Levine’s tenure for years. So, we had conversations about bringing it back.
Yannick agreed that it would be a great thing. I think all of us felt strongly orchestra members playing chamber music together was incredibly important as an artistically exciting and fulfilling thing to do. And it would spotlight members of the Orchestra individually outside of the pit.
Yannick loves to give concerts with the Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and he had a whole tour planned this past spring. He wanted to lift up the orchestra members and showcase us. So, doing a series was something we were planning way before the pandemic.
Now furloughed, musicians are isolated from the act of performing and playing, and that’s very difficult, aside from the financial end of things. It’s like we lost ourselves, and our voice.
Days after the MET closed its doors, it felt like we had to play in some way to stay in touch with our audiences and have our voice out there. But we also soon saw the need for fundraising to support our members because so many of our members are in need. It’s a long time to be without a paycheck you depend on for your life.
For all those reasons, we started doing some social media posts featuring people from their living rooms. Everyone was just sitting at home, trying to hold on to being a musician while figuring out what would happen next.
As the situation in New York became somewhat less dire, we didn’t always need to be in our living rooms or outdoors. We could, with testing, and enough safety protocols, bring members together in a room, get a great audio and video engineer, and make something that feels more like a performance. So, in addition to our pop-up style performances, we thought, let’s do a series.
We pitched it to MET management, to Peter and Yannick first, and Yannick loved the idea. We thought this was a way the MET Orchestra could contribute and be part of supporting the Met through this long closure. We proposed a whole set of repertoire, but it didn’t work out for various reasons, so we said we’ll just do it ourselves. Barb, do you want to talk about your piece of finding the platform?
Barbara Jöstlein Currie: Sure. It was great that you started back there. The social media stuff started getting a bit more intense around June. I reached out to my good friend Sarah Willis, who is a horn player in the Berlin Philharmonic, and a big media personality. Her “Horn Hangouts” are massively famous and successful. She’s on German TV and interviews everybody from Wynton Marsalis to Emanuel Ax.
Sarah has her own platform called Sarah’s Music Space. And I said, “We need something because we can’t just keep playing in our living rooms and we can’t just keep playing outdoors with bad audio quality.” We needed to do something to unify the Orchestra and to give purpose to ourselves again. We’ve lost what we do, and we’ve lost our purpose, and that’s a huge thing to lose as an orchestra.
I asked Sarah about using the platform, 5Stream, and she agreed, and we started having some meetings with her team based in Australia, which is always fun for logistics and time zone management. Julia, did you want to say something?
JB: Sure. They built onto our website a platform that can broadcast high-quality audio and video, which is what we wanted to be able to do. While other organizations do things through Facebook or YouTube, we wanted something that was part of our site, where people could easily read more about our activities and donate right there.
The platform has also enabled us to do live conversations following the programs. We wanted to make it feel like an event, even if it is prerecorded. And we decided to pre-record because it’s a lot safer.
The program we’re going to do on January 17 has Eric Owens as our host. Being in Chicago, he recorded his pieces and then sent them in so we can edit everything together.
We wanted to have a live conversation following the program that would bring the voices of our musicians in and make it feel like something happening in real-time.
BJC: The platform, for me, was very important when looking for different methods of doing this series. We felt it was important to be independent of Facebook, independent from Instagram, from all these other platforms.
The reality we faced was that the Orchestra was kind of left alone; we’re not doing this with the help of management. Instead, we’re relying on our own resources—even the COVID testing. Thankfully, Mount Sinai Hospital is helping with that.
I think one of the biggest reasons why we’re doing the Series—besides playing together—is to show that if we follow safety protocols and carefully organize ourselves, it’s reasonably safe and we can make music together in New York City.
We’ve been very, very fortunate receiving help from many New Yorkers who want to help bring the arts back to NYC. I got in touch with an art gallery manager named Christina Maxwell right here in Chelsea who manages the High Line Nine gallery in the Zaha Hadid building, which is on 28th Street. It has nine separate galleries inside and we’ve been fortunate to use that space to record and film in. Christina lets us use the space in exchange for giving some performances at new art exhibit openings, which has been wonderful!
This is an exciting moment of collaboration in NYC. I wish we were getting paid, but everybody wants to help at this point. We had a Steinway piano to use for our last concert and Steinway pitched in free tuning services and allowing us to use the piano. So now we’ve established a relationship with Steinway, which is something we would have never done. Singers are starting to approach us, wanting to be involved. Angela Georgiou reached out recently, and we are working hard so we can have her involvement.
JB: I want to back up for a moment and say the whole programming arm is part of our 501(c)(3) that we’ve created as an Orchestra. This was originally created around 2014, but it hadn’t been fully fleshed out.
Now we have a board so we can fundraise on behalf of our members during this period to support the group. Keeping the band together is our mission. We want to make sure that people don’t feel they have to leave the field and go into other professions and to try to help people who are struggling to stay in the Metro area.
We have a whole team of people who are working on fundraising and connecting with donors. This Series is an arm of that. Most of us have not worked in nonprofits before. While it’s been a big learning curve for all of us, it’s something new and exciting for the Orchestra to do this independently. I’m very proud of all the work that our members have done to make that possible.
BJC: I want to echo what Julia said. It’s not just Julia and me; it’s a team of many people working together.
OW: Have some Orchestra members moved away from the tristate [New York/New Jersey/Connecticut] area?
JB: You’ve put your finger on something, something which is very difficult. We’ve done surveys and found that a third of our members are at least temporarily living elsewhere at the moment. Some have gone to live with family or just moved to places that have a cheaper cost of living. We do have some members who travel back to take part in these performing projects, but because we’re prerecording, a member could record something remotely. If a member is living in Taiwan, they could send us a video and we could use it.
BJC: Many people have left the region. I would say the 30% figure is a few months old. And by left, I mean actually let go of their apartments and maybe even their homes.
OW: Are they leaving the Orchestra?
BJC: Many people are going to school looking for career changes. I mean, I can think of three or four right now just off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s more. Members are taking classes at universities to do something different–not even in music and shoring up skills as a backup because they have time.
JB: We’re people who are used to being extraordinarily busy with our profession, and to have this number of hours on our hands makes us a little crazy.
OW: I want to go back to something you said about Maestro Nezét-Séguin because I think it’s important. And I would like to get this out because it sounds like you have felt supported in this endeavor. Is there more you could say about that?
JB: I will say from the first conversations we had; Yannick believed very strongly in the idea of lifting up the members in chamber music. And he encouraged us from the start to do it ourselves, to have it come from the members based on what they were interested in playing and to plan it ourselves. He didn’t want to take it on and curate it. He said, “You guys do it. This would be terrific.”
I really appreciated that. He’s definitely been supportive of the idea throughout the pandemic and has offered to participate. But the relationship has gotten a little complicated for everyone because he has a complicated position.
He recently made a very generous matching gift to the Orchestra and to the Chorus. He wants these discussions to move forward. We appreciate the support.
OW: Can you tell me about some overarching goals you have for the Series?
BJC: We feel we’ve gone through all the stages of grief, abandonment, and everything from management. We’ve looked at what can we do—from trying to perform at Carnegie Hall as an independent organization to performing in Taiwan with the many contacts we have in Asia and really anywhere. The sky’s the limit. But you have to have the money and contacts.
JB: I think one of our main goals is to raise the profile of the orchestra and to have its players reach out to our audiences; let people see the orchestra outside of the pit. That was a goal even before the pandemic. I think our other main goal is fundraising through our 501(c)(3). I think in order to fundraise effectively, I always say a great performance is so much more powerful than a million words.
We felt strongly that a high-quality audio and video performance of the MET Orchestra would kind of bring people back to what they miss about the Met Opera and why they love it.
BJC: As far as future goals, I think it depends on so many factors. It’s hard to say what exactly is going to happen. If we went back to work tomorrow, who knows? So many new issues and challenges await.
JB: It’s COVID. We’re used to everything changing everything three weeks or so. We plan and then we re-plan.
BJC: I’m not going to blame COVID because many orchestras have not reacted similarly, but I think what it’s done is fundamentally changed, in a sense, the psyche of the entire Orchestra in ways we don’t even know how it’s going to manifest itself.
Maybe the Series doesn’t seem like such a big challenge or such a big revolutionary idea. But for us to be doing this on our own, independent of management, is a huge shift.
OW: Let’s discuss programming and frequency. How are you selecting the music for each performance? And how often are you streaming each installment?
JB: At the moment, we’re doing monthly. We had originally thought every two weeks. But it’s just such a big process putting it all together. We started in November, so January 17 will be our third concert.
We have a whole team of people who help with brainstorming and programming pieces. We did a big survey of all our members asking people to suggest repertoire that they’d like to play or groups they wish to play with, and we try to work in as much as we can. In each program, we try to include some element from opera; a piece of our repertoire that kind of defines who we are. It’s kind of our music in a way; it’s what we are most familiar with. So, we try to offer that, as well as some new voices.
For me, I always love when we’re able to do new opera, and as musicians it’s one of the most exciting things we do, finding new works that haven’t been played over and over again. We can bring the works to the public that people haven’t heard before. So, we’re always looking for new pieces and new voices and also just music that really inspires and that people are excited about playing.
When people get together for these recording sessions. It’s a very emotional thing. Some members haven’t played together in so long. We’re all practicing but to be in that state where you’re making something beautiful, and it’s influencing how someone else plays and then, in return, you’re being influenced by them, that kind of give and take is something you really miss. It’s been wonderful to see people find that again.
BJC: I think Julia is quite modest because she’s doing much of the programming. I mean, it is a team effort, but she brought on a Sphinx Organization composer, Carlos Simon, for our January 17 performance and we also have Caroline Shaw, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer on the program.
The last program was a holiday brass program, and we had Isabel Leonard sing with us, which was great. And then we also had our horn quartet—the only four horns that are in the tristate area—performed the evening prayer from “Hansel and Gretel” with the Berlin Philharmonic horn section. Piecing that together was an engineering feat.
I have to say the kudos for the programming go to Julia. She’s doing a tremendous amount of research, along with permissions, so we’re not violating any copyright laws; it’s a lot.
OW: You held up Isabel Leonard as an example of a soloist who performed in the Series. Have you felt supported by the singer community? It sounds like they’re reaching out and wanting to take part.
BJC: Every single person we’ve asked so far has said yes. Everything we’re doing is on a volunteer basis, there’s very little money involved with this. When Matthew Polenzani joined us for the first performance of the Series, he had just flown in from Europe. He came and hosted not knowing exactly how we were going to do this, because of the whole live chat aspect. Then Isabel came and asked to sing. She said, “I’d love just singing with you guys,” and we thought, “Okay, this is amazing.”
Our host on January 17, Eric Owens, was also very happy to host. He’ll be virtual, of course, because he’s in Chicago.
Like I said, Angela Gheorgiou reached out and we’re in the process of communicating with her. Nothing is confirmed yet. But, in answer to your question, we feel very supported by the singers of the Met.
OW: What are the important things you want the opera community to know as you and others work to hold the Orchestra together during this challenging time?
BJC: Tickets for each installment of the Series are only $15 and are available on our website. We’re always looking for sponsors, so if somebody wants to donate a significant portion for the concerts, that would be great.
But also, please keep donating to the MET Orchestra Musicians. All the public support that we’ve been getting on social media is very, very, very, very helpful to us, especially for our morale. We see all of it; we read it, and we appreciate it.
We are all extremely dedicated and loyal performers of the Metropolitan Opera. We give our lives to the art form. We don’t see our families enough because of it. And physically, we challenge our bodies by playing these long operas.
I’ve been here for 23 years and I’m astounded when we play “La Bohème” for the 18th time in a season, and nobody’s phoning it in, as far as I can tell. We give everything to every performance and this whole occurrence of events has forced us to think in a different way as an orchestra and to be a unit.
JB: I would also want to mention a couple of other projects that our (c)(3) has been doing for educational outreach. We have a partnership with the Harlem Renaissance School of the Arts, where we’re helping develop their strings program. They have a brass and winds program that we’ve participated in and our members serve as mentors and give classes for their students. We’re helping them recruit from grade schools and develop the program.
We also do a whole series of masterclasses with a number of other organizations such as the Lyra Barangaça in Brazil, which provides free music lessons and bands to their surrounding community. Bonna instrument cases is a huge international instrument case maker in Brazil. We’re trying to keep connected to our immediate community and our global music community.
OW: What are you most looking forward to on January 17?
JB: Well, I’m really excited because I’m getting to play in it. That’s always great. The new works by Carlos Simon and Caroline Shaw are really exciting; it’s music I’ve never played before that I’m glad we’re including. And I’m also playing in some short arrangements from “The Magic Flute” with our principal flutist, Chelsea Knox. “Magic Flute” is one of my all-time favorite operas.
BJC: By the way, your arrangement sounds really, really great. We also have Elaine Douvas, who is our principal oboe playing with Chelsea Knox, our Principal Flute. Bryan Wagorn is our pianist, and he’s on the music staff.
We should mention that any donations that come in don’t go to the Met Opera. This can be a little confusing. Donations to the MET Orchestra Musicians go to our own fund which encompasses 150 people and it’s not just the Orchestra; it’s also the music staff and any associate musicians who play a certain number of performances with us.
JB: Our funds support all of those people through need-based grants. We have different grant cycles and people can apply. That’s a really exciting thing that we’re able to offer to our members and try to keep everyone together during this time.
BJC: We also established a new alumni group of the MET Orchestra. It has been extraordinarily uplifting for us to see our colleagues, some of whom retired 40 years ago, and they come to meetings and we just talk about things and issues. We have many musicians who are in all the top orchestra around the country; principal players in the Chicago Symphony, in Philadelphia, and Los Angeles—everywhere. Once you belong to the MET Orchestra family, you don’t ever really leave. It’s something unique and special, and that’s what we’re trying to preserve.