All-star crowd-pleasers are status quo in the entertainment world, from the NBA to “We Are the World.” But orchestras usually spurn such events. The New York Philharmonic will never cross Lincoln Center to mix with the New York City Ballet Orchestra or (gasp) the American Symphony Orchestra. “It’s not what we do,” says Philharmonic spokesman Eric Latzky. “We’re an orchestra of 106 full-time musicians who enter through a very stringent audition process.”
But a freelance conductor named George Mathew (above) decided to challenge this isolationist status quo, becoming in the process the Bono (or Bob Geldof?) of classical music. His second supergroup extravaganza is “Requiem for Darfur,” January 22 at Carnegie Hall. Metropolitan Opera orchestra principal bass Tim Cobb, Berlin Philharmonic star violist Matthew Hunter, and New York Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow will step off their home stages and gather with principal players from nineteen other orchestras to run through Verdi’s Requiem.
When Mathew came up with the idea, he didn’t expect anyone to say yes. “It was held together by smoke and mirrors,” he says. “I was working on public-access computers at Columbia. If Yahoo sneezed, the whole event would have been canceled.” He cold-called noted musicians. “I was surprised by the call, but George is extremely compelling,” says Dicterow. “Who else thinks of a music event about helping people?” Well, lots of people, but usually they’re guilt-ridden pop-star wastrels, not overworked classical musicians. A December week for the Philharmonic, notes David Wakefield, an associate dean at Juilliard, packed in eleven performances and rehearsals. “That’s 33 hours on the job, plus numerous hours rehearsing alone. If players miss notes, they can be put on probation. They really are on a firing line,” he says. “We do school concerts and individual concerts for board members,” says Philharmonic trombonist Joseph Alessi. “I teach nine and a half hours a week, plus our brass quintet.”
In any case, with audiences dwindling, most orchestras’ benefits end up being for themselves: The Philharmonic hosts two galas a year, plus two fund-raisers for members’ retirement funds.