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A Profile of the Musicians of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra

The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (PRSO) was created on June 20, 1957, by Joint Resolution Number 92 of the Puerto Rico Legislature . It serves the people of Puerto Rico. In order for Puerto Ricans to better know this noble institution, we, the members of the PRSO, offer the following profile, which is based, partially, on information compiled in a questionnaire that we circulated on May 23, 2009.

The first season of the PRSO lasted four weeks in 1958, and the members consisted of musicians who remained after the Casals Festival to play concerts on the island, including four Puerto Ricans (José, Kachiro, and Guillermo Figueroa, and Henry Hutchinson, father.)

The seasons celebrating its 50-year anniversary, 2008-09 and 2009-10, consisted, by master agreement, of 52 weeks, with a membership of 80, of which 91% are Puerto Ricans. Approximately 55% of the current musicians studied in one of the Free Schools of Music (Escuelas Libres de Musica) and/or the Children’s String Program (adjunct to the Conservatory of Music of P.R., CMPR.) Sixty-six percent of the members of the PRSO earned a bachelor of music degree from the CMPR.

The musicians’ educational level is admirable: 100%--all—hold bachelor degrees in performance (or the equivalent;) at least seven musicians earned a second, or, in one case, a third bachelor degree(in education, science, humanities, medical technology, etc.) Forty musicians (50%) earned masters degrees (including one with two masters.) Three musicians completed their doctorates in music, and one more completed all the required course work.

The list of institutions which granted the degrees to our musicians includes the most prestigious in the field of performance: Juilliard, Eastman, Yale, Manhattan School, Mannes, New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Peabody Conservatory, Cleveland Institute, Rice University, Oberlin, Temple, New School of Music, Indiana University, New York University, Northwestern University, Catholic University, Duquesne, DePauw, Universities of Texas at Austin, Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Central Florida, Wisconsin, Akron, Florida International University, Michigan State, Bowling Green University, and the University of Puerto Rico. In addition, degrees were earned at the L’Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, the Conservatory George Enesco in Bucharest, and studies were done in the famed “El Sistema” in Venezuela.

The list of teachers who have been important in the musical formation of our “Symphonists” is also impressive. The art of performing is passed from one generation to the next by stage veterans. In the PRSO this influence is notable: in the musicians’ questionnaires, five violinists cited José (Pepito) Figueroa as an important teacher in their musical development. Other teachers cited multiple times included Kachiro Figueroa, Jaime Medina, Henry Hutchinson, Jr., Carlos Rodriguez, Guillermo Figueroa, Joaquin Vidaechea, Rafael Figueroa, Manuel Verdeguer, David Bourns, and Antonio Salcedo, all members of the PRSO for decades. The complete list of important teachers in the musical development of the Symphony members is found in Appendix #1, at the end. Those who know the world of orchestras will recognize names from the five largest symphonies in the Unites States: the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra, among others.

It is important to recognize the work of the PR Symphony Support Group (Asociación Pro-Orquesta Sinfónica – APOS) in the continuing education of the musicians in the PRSO. In 1982 these volunteers established the Sanromá Scholarship, to help tenured musicians continue advanced studies during the summer. Since January of 1983 they have granted 162 scholarships to 59 musicians, with a total value of $279,767.00. These funds, raised from the private sector, have contributed greatly to the improvement of the musicians’ skills, and the work of the volunteers in charge of the program is much appreciated by the musicians of the PRSO.

Currently, winning a seat in the Puerto Rico Symphony is not an easy proposition. During its first twenty years, the PRSO season lengthened by a few weeks at a time, and the membership was enriched by musicians from off island, sometimes invited based on recommendations. For example, in 1975, the Orchestra included musicians from France, Italy, Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Argentina, in addition to those from Puerto Rico and the United States.

The Master Agreement signed November 5, 1977 brought important changes: a 34-week season, and an article stipulating “To be admitted as a regular, fulltime member of the PRSO, or as a part time reinforcement, every candidate must present an audition…”

In the current Master Agreement, there are 15 pages in Article Five dealing with conditions for auditions, defining every aspect of the process: required time between the announcement of the audition and it being held; necessity of holding two local auditions before announcing the vacancy outside of Puerto Rico; the constitution of the audition committee; voting, minimum passing score, etc. Auditions for permanent positions require the use of a curtain, guaranteeing the anonymity of the candidates, who play in an order chosen at random just before the audition. On several occasions, the PRSO has held auditions in which no one has won. Please see Appendix #2 for more details.

The preparation required to be able to pass an audition of this kind is difficult for a non-musician to imagine. The lists of repertoire to prepare contain an average of 11 works; depending on the instrument and the chair which is vacant, the list may include four works or 30. What is certain is that no one passes with fewer than 10,000 hours of their time invested in playing their instrument.

As in sports, music is a dedication which must be started at a young age if one hopes to reach a professional level. Eighteen percent (18%) of the musicians in our Symphony began to study music before seven years of age. Two of every three (66%) were immersed in their studies before turning 11. No one in the PRSO began his or her music studies later than 16 years of age. That is to say, that each musician, before even thinking of auditioning for the PRSO, represented an investment of thousands of dollars on the part of their family, in the costs of classes and instruments, and an investment of thousands of hours of study and practice on the part of the student. One violinist calculated in the questionnaire that she had dedicated 25,000 hours of study before entering the PRSO, and estimates some 900 hours of practice yearly to remain at the necessary level playing the repertoire.

Approximately half of the musicians entered the PRSO before reaching 25 years of age. Others waited long years for a chair to open up, especially in the wind and percussion sections, where each of these 29 people is a soloist—or to say, the only one playing his or her part. Currently, according to the Master Agreement, the PRSO provides “regular” positions: 13 first violins, 12 second violins, 10 violas, 9 cellos, 7 double basses, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 5 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba, 1 timpani, 3 percussion, and 1 harp. If the score requires, the number of musicians can be augmented by contracting additional musicians on a per- service basis, but the basic minimum number is fixed.

The Master Agreement offers the 80 regular members 52 weeks of work, including vacations, a contribution towards a medical plan, and a pension plan. On the other hand, the Master Agreement requires various responsibilities of each member: a week of work consists of six “services”, which are defined as a rehearsal or a concert not to exceed three hours in duration. Clauses stipulate that musicians arriving late to a service will be fined, as will those who do not wear the correct uniform to concerts—formal tuxedo for the men, and long black dresses or formal pants for the women, all with the appropriate black shoes and, for men, black socks. During a service the musicians are not allowed to talk, drink, eat, or leave their chair without a very good reason. The atmosphere in an orchestra service is one of respect and discipline, where each musician cedes some individual rights in order to achieve precise group work amongst all.

Each musician, with the exception of the percussionists and the harpist, is responsible for arriving at each service with his or her own instrument in good playing condition. More than half of the members of the PRSO maintain an additional, back-up instrument , and some, like flautists, oboists, and clarinetists have various instruments of different sizes and tonalities which can be needed in the repertoire. The cost of these instruments is something that the musicians don’t like to publically announce; we all know of cases of assault and armed robbery. But it is safe to say that in some cases, musicians’ instruments are more expensive than their cars. Violinists, violists, cellists and bass players need more than one bow, and a good bow can cost $10,000. One of the violins that is used on stage, although it cost “only” $9,000 to buy some years ago, is now valued at $200,000 to replace.

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