This is a guest post by double bassist Jean-Yves Bénichou. Benjy is bi-national, being a citizen of both the United States and France. He has lived in France for the past 30 years and has been a member of the Strasbourg Philharmonic since 1985. He studied double bass at Temple University with Edward Arian and at Yale University with Homer Mensch, as well as additional studies with Roger Scott and François Rabbath.
I really appreciate the opportunity to post this excellent and informative article. Feel free to leave your thoughts and questions for Benjy in the comments to this post.
As an American bass player living in France for the past 30 years, being a member of the Strasbourg Philharmonic for the past 22 years has been undoubtedly the ultimate milestone of my career. I entered the group in 1985 as a section player, and have acted as temporary assistant principle for 5 years from 1991-1996, and from 2006-2007. As I skim though Jason’s blog and read the various articles on the ups and downs of being a bassist today’s society, I remind myself that I too was an aspiring beginner just like everyone else. Times have certainly changed, but what’s important for all of us is neither to lament nor to give up. My goal is to share my past experiences with others directly by means of the Internet, in order to transmit the fact that hope and luck are still alive in all of us.
When I first set foot upon the European continent in the 1976 Spoleto Festival, little did I know that I would later on end up in one of Europe’s most prestigious groups. I had already spent 6 years touring different European countries and the USA with the Toulouse Chamber Orchestra, but I felt that if I had lingered on in that beautiful southwest town world renown for its Airbus factories, my former bass education would slowly come to a halt. Playing baroque music day in and day out can ruin one’s mind I thought, why can’t I move on and go back to Mahler, Strauss, Beethoven and Brahms? It was time to move along and audition for orchestral jobs, no matter where. At the age of 33, I took an audition and was accepted in Strasbourg, France.
The Philharmonic with its 110 players is now 152 years old making it one of the oldest orchestras in France. It was founded in 1855 and has grown from a small conservatory “association” into full symphonic orchestra. Before the turn of the 20th century and until 1925, it was not unusual for concerts to have listed on their program an overture, a concerto, and 2 major symphonic works. Let’s not forget that radio, telephone, television and Internet were still not invented; people went out from 6:00 pm till midnight. During those first few years of its creation, an important lawyer-sponsor Louis Apffel started a foundation which still exists today, stipulating that all first chair orchestral players automatically become teachers at the local conservatory. (Nowadays, such a job is worth its weight in gold!). The Philharmonic has successively been lead under the batons of the following conductors: Hans Pfitzner, Otto Klemperer, Georges Szell, Hans Rosbaud, Ernest Bour, Alceo Galliera, Alain Lombard, Theodore Guschlbauer, Jan Latham-Koenig and since the past year 2006 and on, Marc Albrecht. The Orchestra symbolizes Europe wherever it tours and needless to say, our main musical hit during these festive occasions is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the 9th symphony.
The town of Strasbourg is located in the border of the Rhine River which separates France from Germany. During the Roman Empire it was known as Argentoratum and celebrated its 2000th anniversary back in 1988. The population has presently grown to 300,000, not including the suburbs. It is the capital of the Alsatian region, but has lived under the annexation of France to Germany 4 times since the beginning of the First World War. Maybe this is one of the reasons the Philharmonic has survived for so long. The following are a few musical titbits that are usually associated with the town:
Mozart was offered a job as organist in the St. Thomas church, but refused the position. The French national anthem known as “La Marseillaise” was composed in 1792 and sung for the first time here in town by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. In 1858 Wagner while passing through heard a performance of his Tannhäuser overture and was quoted saying to a friend in a letter” to my very great surprise, the orchestra played very well, sometimes excellently, with very fine dynamics and the whole with lots of punch, enough to overwhelm and impress me”. Camille Saint-Saëns was proclaimed in 1878 performing his 4th piano concerto along with his 3rd symphony and other works that same year. Brahms was also present conducting his 2nd symphony in 1881. In May 1905, Richard Strauss performed a piano version of his new opera “Salomé” for his new acquaintance Gustave Mahler in what is now the Wolf music store, still standing. Strauss also conducted Till Eulenspiegle and Zarathustra in 1899 and Ein Heldenleben in 1901. In a 1905 festival, Mahler conducted his 5th symphony, while Strauss led the group in his Symphonia Domestica. Mahler closed the series with a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th. I cannot help but to think about the presence of these composer-conductors in town when playing these works in concert.
It is interesting to note that bigger cities can usually support 2 orchestras one symphonic, one operatic. Due to the size of this city, there has always been one official orchestra which has always been employed by the town. Having known the musical luxury of switching over from one to the other, I personally would go out of my mind if things were ever to change. It’s simply not healthy. Our season thus has a typical subscription series of 12 major concerts with 4-5 Operatic productions for l’Opéra du Rhin. As an official “town worker”, we members have all of the fringe benefits and advantages that all Strasbourg employees receive, such as a 13 month of pay as a Christmas bonus, (European orchestras pay by month and are always paid 52 weeks), reduced prices for vacationing, or anything else in the same realm, including cheap housing loans, etc. The most incredible part is that after a year, you receive full tenureship and can no longer be fired from the group. We also play our share of TV and CD recordings, regional concerts, and touring, and receive yearly royalties for all. Although there is a musicians union, known as the S.N.A.M (Syndicat National des Artistes Musiciens), you are free to join or not. There is no pressure upon you as in the states.
When I think about it, there is no other job more enriching for a modern musician. The hall we play in the “Palais de la Musique et des Congès” is mainly a congress hall, since Strasbourg is the geographical center of Europe. The auditorium also has great acoustics for symphonic music and has just been renovated after 33 years. In comparison to other French towns, we have our own parking lot, which entirely eliminates that time wasting daily cut-throat search amongst drivers. Every group of instruments has its own practice rooms/lockers, which surround the orchestra rehearsal room. Our services are only 2.5 hours long (compared to the one time usual 3 hours in other orchestras) and for many years we were the only orchestra in France with such a contract. All of the characteristics that I have mentioned may sound strange by American standards, but this is Europe. I have yet to see big orchestras in the USA become full fledged town workers and let go of their usual sponsors to survive.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article from Benjy.