The Pacific Symphony
How three Pacific Symphony players orchestrate their lives and livelihoods
A year ago, 29-year-old bass trombonist Kyle Mendiguchia would have jumped on a plane to audition for a respected midsize orchestra such as Kansas City Symphony. Unlike his current position with Orange County’s Pacific Symphony, the Kansas City, Missouri, orchestra is a full-time job – the goal of most musicians aspiring to join the competitive orchestra world.
But while the Juilliard-trained Mendiguchia admits he’d still be first in line to audition for one of the world’s top orchestras – including the renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic – he’s discovered a wealth of benefits to being part of an orchestra like Pacific Symphony, even though it’s technically a part-time gig.
Mendiguchia, a San Diego native, has completed his first season with Pacific Symphony and admits he’s feeling his way through the two-year probationary period:
“It’s strange because in school so much of what we do is train to win a job,” he says during a post-rehearsal conversation at the orchestra’s home, Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. “But sometimes it takes more than winning a job to keep the job. Now I’ve got to prove to these people that I should stay here. It’s a little stressful.”
Still it’s joyful stress – since taking the position, Mendiguchia has discovered he might just want to be with Pacific Symphony longer than he ever expected.
“When it’s Chicago or San Francisco, when those orchestras eventually open, I will be going after them like everyone else, because those are dream jobs with a lot of stability,” Mendiguchia muses. “But I can now choose: Do I really want to go audition for, let’s say Kansas City Symphony? This isn’t full-time, but it’s close, and there are a lot of other really great things going on.”
Those great things include living close to friends and family (he’s a newlywed) as well as the opportunity to play pops concerts and accompany dance series performances at another venue in the complex, Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
While Pacific Symphony musicians are paid by the rehearsal or performance, and do not enjoy paid vacation time, top paychecks or other benefits bestowed on salaried orchestras, some say flexibility of schedule and an emphasis on community outreach can far outweigh the negatives.
Pacific Symphony President John E. Forsyte says the “top-tier orchestra” made a splash with its first European tour in 2006 and has expanded its annual slate of classical concerts from 24 to 40 since its founding in 1978. Forsyte describes the early ensemble as mostly comprising “great commercial musicians and professional freelancers” who might spend as much time in Hollywood recording studios as performing with the orchestra. Now, he says, Pacific Symphony is the anchor of most members’ careers and many more of its musicians live locally rather than commuting from Los Angeles.
“I don’t like ‘part time’ – I think it’s pejorative,” the executive says. The salary model may not be the goal, he adds. “I think the key is we are trying to build an orchestra that serves the community at the highest possible level. We have a unique profile that makes us very special.”
Three musicians at different stages of their careers – Mendiguchia, second violinist Alice Wrate, 44, and first violinist Robert Schumitzky, 55 – tell us how, and why, they’re choosing to make it work.
At a certain level, snaring a top job almost becomes the luck of the draw. The players say that audition groups of 90 to 150 tend to winnow down to a roundup of the 10 to 12 usual suspects by the semifinals. For this reason, even though some Pacific Symphony players did not make the cut for a major orchestra, they’re still among the world’s finest players (as well as owners of some of the world’s most coveted instruments, including Schumitzky’s 1694 Stradivarius violin).
The orchestra also draws star musical guests. Before Mendiguchia’s interview, the symphony – led for 26 years by music director Carl St.Clair – was rehearsing with acclaimed Serbian mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic, playfully vamping her way through a semi-staged performance of her signature title role in Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”
Mendiguchia says his Pacific Symphony audition was one of the most competitive he’s ever encountered. Beginning at 9 a.m., the day included a grueling six rounds of blind auditions, whittling a field of about 60. Schumitzky, also a Juilliard graduate and a veteran of St. Louis Symphony, observes: “Our product is just as good, we’re able to attract great players, but we operate on a per service mode. That leaves a little bit of uncertainty for weeks that there is no work. We have to find something else in order to stay here.”
It’s a reality: Pacific Symphony operates on a budget of $20 million. Compare that with the LA Phil: That orchestra will not provide financial figures but had a reported budget of more than $115 million in 2013. Kansas City Symphony reports a budget of about $32 million. San Diego Symphony offers full-time positions with a budget of $25 million.
Musicians’ salaries vary so widely it’s like comparing tubas to piccolos, but sources estimate a starting salary of $150,000 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At the Pacific Symphony, a principal musician who plays all possible concerts may take home $75,000 to $80,000. Musicians in smaller cities may receive lower salaries than the big-city majors, but the cost of living can be lower too. Not so in pricey Orange County.
An orchestra of the LA Phil’s stature offers musicians steady work, frequent world tours and plentiful recording opportunities. Touring is not just about the money: Schumitzky believes that more time spent onstage together allows an orchestra to refine its sound.
Newport Coast resident Schumitzky supplements his musical life with a whirlwind of engagements, including a position with Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, frequent appearances with the San Diego Symphony, studio work in LA and performing with the Aviara Trio, which includes his wife, cellist Erin Breene, and pianist Ines Irawati. He’s in the car a lot. He loves the variety offered by the Southern California music scene, though he laments, “Some San Diego Symphony musicians can walk to work.”
For Wrate, from Columbus, Georgia, a flexible schedule allows her to combine music with family. There’s a minimum of eight “sets” of classic series concerts-plus-rehearsals required to maintain her orchestra position, though she usually plays much more. She also performs chamber music with the Arroyo String Quartet. “The only difficulty with the symphony is we don't get paid as much as we’d like to. The good thing is we have a lot of freedom to do a lot of other things. We never get bored,” she says.
And it’s nice to be able to step away when necessary to care for her three girls: twins Maddie and Ella, 10, and 7-year-old Olivia. Everyone in the family plays an instrument, including husband John Wrate, a computer consultant, so the group often entertains its fellow worshippers at church with music. “We joke that we’re the von Trapp family,’” says Wrate at her Newport Beach home.
Not that the Pacific Symphony schedule isn’t intense. “Rehearsals and concerts are at night, so I would put my kids in bed, hop on into my car, exhausted – and then I would start playing and I got all this creative energy that made me feel so alive again,” Wrate says. Still, she does not pursue Hollywood studio work: “You can make a lot of money doing that, but you have to say yes; you have to jump as soon as they call,” she says. “And you just can’t do that with kids.”
Mendiguchia came to Orange County after commuting from his New York home to jobs elsewhere, including Naples, Florida, where he performed with the Naples Philharmonic. That was fun – learning to play pops and Broadway scores for the Naples orchestra while enjoying city life in Manhattan. But Mendiguchia, who lives in Dana Point with new wife Claudia Quené-Mendiguchia, by far prefers the professional challenges and lifestyle afforded by his job with the Pacific Symphony.
Sure, he’d like to see the orchestra grow to a point where its yearly schedule includes more concerts, but he remains grateful to have landed in a dauntingly competitive landscape. He can point to fellow music students that haven’t been so lucky. “I’m doing what I wanted to do,” Mendiguchia says.
Unlike many musicians whose only passion is their instrument, Schumitzky has always had eclectic interests – in fact he’s a licensed paramedic. If he ever moves from the Pacific Symphony to a larger orchestra, it would most likely be in management. He wore hats as assistant concertmaster and personnel manager for the now-defunct Opera Pacific, and has extended his involvement with the Pacific Symphony to serve as chair of its orchestra committee as well as union steward.
But it's the voice of a musician you hear when Schumitzky speaks of his dreams for the Pacific Symphony. “There will come a time when this orchestra outgrows our current music director, Carl St.Clair, and our current musicians,” he muses. “We need to have an infrastructure and a commitment from our management in order to attract the best musicians. Only then will this orchestra get to that next level of artistry and success."