The first time the Los Angeles Philharmonic held auditions to fill its Associate Principal Clarinet chair, no one was hired. During the past week, they tried again, and this time it looks like they made an offer — and it’s a doozy. No official word from the orchestra, but according to numerous sources, Burt Hara, Southern California native and current Principal Clarinet of the Minnesota Orchestra (MO), will be taking the job. (Ralph Skiano, Principal with the Richmond Symphony, was the runner-up)
This is a huge coup for the LA Phil. Mr. Hara is one of the leading clarinetists anywhere. In addition to having held his position in Minnesota since 1987, he spent the 1996-97 season as Principal with the Philadelphia Orchestra and played some noteworthy concerts with the New York Philharmonic in 2010.
Unfortunately, this also happens to be a huge loss for the MO. Mr. Hara has been one of the undeniable stars of that orchestra. Just last week, he was the featured soloist in the Mozart clarinet concerto during a special concert being given by the musicians of the orchestra (a self-organized gig in the ongoing wake of their misbegotten lockout by the MO’s management). Larry Fuchsberg, writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, described his playing this way: “Hara, at once soloistic and self-effacing, made it look easy. His was marvelously centered playing, unembellished but by no means plain.”
That Mr. Hara would be willing to take what most would consider to be a step down (from Principal in one major orchestra to Associate Principal in another) points to just how big a cluster-f*** the situation with the MO has become. According to the most recent offer from the MO’s management, principals in that orchestra would have to take a 50% slash in their salary — and there is no indication that the MO’s musicians will agree to such a drastic cut. As a member of the musician’s negotiating committee, Mr. Hara has had a front-row seat to all that nonsense. This past October, he seemed resigned to the situation and foreshadowed his departure:
Hara came to Minneapolis to join the Minnesota Orchestra 25 years ago. “It was a dream come true,” he shared. “I was 23 at the time. I won the job in what I considered a destination orchestra — a job I considered I would be in my whole career.”
“I love my life, I love my community, I love my neighbors, I love the orchestra,” Hara said. “Now, I would consider leaving… Had I known what is happening now, I would have taken other offers more seriously in the past three to five years.” (Minneapolis Labor Review: October 26, 2012)
Of course, titles aside, playing with the LA Phil is hardly a consolation gig — in fact, many would consider it a step up when you take everything into account. Mr. Hara’s new orchestra is in great financial AND artistic shape, they play in a kick-ass acoustical AND architectural gem of a concert hall, and their Music Director is about as well-known a conductor as there is in the world these days. He’ll be joining an excellent section, headed up by the legendary Michele Zukovsky. Last but not least, there is the issue of money: titled chairs negotiate their own salaries within guidelines set forth in an orchestra’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, but the odds are good that Mr. Hara will be pulling down at least as much $$$ in LA as he did in pre-lockout Minnesota.
No word on when he’ll be joining the orchestra, but whenever it is, it’ll be interesting to see how he’ll be utilized. When the late Lorin Levee was sharing Principal Clarinet duties with Ms. Zukovsky, they pretty much spent equal time playing first chair. In contrast, while Associate Principals spend a fair amount of time sitting first chair, they are more likely to do so during concertos and other smaller pieces, with the Principal taking on the “big” works. Given Mr. Hara’s vaunted background, will he split time evenly with Ms. Zukovsky as Mr. Levee did or will his duties be more typical to other Associate Principals? We’ll have to see.
One thing that is almost certain is that he’ll be playing a lot more 2nd Clarinet than he ever did in the past 25 years. Unlike most of the other wind sections, there is no dedicated 2nd Clarinet in the LA Phil. In most other orchestras, the Associate Principal Clarinet also doubles as E-flat Clarinet or Bass Clarinet; however, in the LA Phil, Monica Kaenzig holds the E-flat chair and David Howard (acting Associate Principal this past season) is the bass clarinet. Because of this, all four players in the section spend some time playing second chair. In the past, it was not unusual in some major works to see Ms. Zukovsky OR Mr. Levee sitting first chair while the other one played second, with Ms. Kaenzig and Mr. Howard playing their respective instruments full-time. I don’t know any other major orchestra with that arrangement — go figure.
Once Mr. Hara arrives and gets settled into his spot at Walt Disney Concert Hall (and/or the Hollywood Bowl if he begins playing this summer), the next question is whether or not he’ll stay long-term.
- On one hand, he is good enough to be Principal Clarinet at pretty much any other orchestra, and among those on the hunt is the Chicago Symphony, who recently lost their Principal Clarinet, Steve Williamson, to the NY Phil; though they recently had some labor hiccups of their own, the CSO is one of the few orchestras that can stand toe-to-toe with the LA Phil on almost all other fronts. Alternately, perhaps if/when the Minnesota Orchestra finally settles its labor dispute, he’ll want to return to the place where he’s spent the past quarter-century, just as he did after a year with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
- On the other hand, the likelihood of the MO resembling the grand orchestra it was just a year ago is, tragically, extremely small. Even if the MO management agrees to a salary that is somewhere in the ballpark of what musicians want, the ill-will developed during this lockout is certainly a huge disincentive for any musician to want to return there, especially when compared to the decades of labor stability that the LA Phil has experienced. In addition, it’s worth noting that around the same time as Mr. Hara’s 1996 arrival in Philly, the orchestra lost its recording contract with EMI and went on strike for over two months — hardly the kind of thing that endears one to a new situation, and perhaps a contributing factor in his decision to return to Minnesota. Lastly, Mr. Hara grew up in Southern California, so even though it hasn’t been home for a few decades, he won’t be a complete stranger.
Regardless of what happens, it will be a true pleasure to have Burt Hara playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Going back to the 2006 arrival of Carrie Dennis from the Berlin Philharmonic and Joe Pereira from the NY Phil through this year’s additions of Tom Hooten, Nitzan Haroz, and Robert DeMaine (and many others in between), his is the latest in a string of noteworthy hires the orchestra has made to build upon its already excellent roster of musicians. The future continues to look bright for the orchestra, much to the benefit of Southern California music fans.
Now if the LA Phil can just find a Principal Flute . . .
- Catching up with the LA Phil: trying to fill empty chairs
- RIP Lorin Levee, LA Phil Principal Clarinet
Photo credit: Nate Ryan