Meet the two-orchestra concertmaster (with a 3rd title)

Meet the two-orchestra concertmaster (with a 3rd title)


norman lebrecht

April 09, 2019

Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster of Chattanooga Symphony, has taken on a parallel contract with the Wichita Symphony, where she will also be Partner for Audience Engagement.

Its music director Daniel Hege said, ‘Ms. Mulcahy possesses the musical leadership, communication skills, and innovative thinking that will enrich the Orchestra and deepen community connections in a 21st century orchestra model.’

Could be a whole new model for orchestra employment.



  • drummerman says:

    We wish her well but it’s very unusual for someone to be concertmaster of two orchestra over 800 miles apart from one another. I believe that she lives in Chicago, thus one must envy her frequent flier miles!

  • If she can serve both, these two orchestras must have relatively sparse seasons–a significant problem with many regional orchestras in the USA. A musician of her caliber should have one full time position and not have to dissipate her life with an excess of air travel.

    • Drew McManus says:

      I would agree those are fairly common sentiments, having said that, times are changing and there are far more musicians who have much higher job satisfaction levels *not* playing in 52-week orchestras. That doesn’t mean this model doesn’t have challenges, not the least of which being less common to find one of the employers in the mix that offer benefits.

      The travel considerations are certainly worth considering. I can say with all certainty* it doesn’t dissipate quality of life in her arrangement. It’s far better than spending hours and hours in a car commuting back and forth to a primary venue (we don’t even own a car).

      Another consideration is opportunity. Quite a few 52-week (or smaller budget but still living wage) orchestras would never consider providing the opportunity for crafting positions like these.

      What I’m confident of is this position has the capability of disrupting traditional perceptions of musician valuation.

      In the end, each musician needs to consider these paths carefully. Being a pioneer is fraught with bear traps. But one thing I would recommend to anyone considering a similar direction is don’t limit your options by artificial benchmarks for happiness, artistic satisfaction, and quality of life.

      ~ Drew

      Full Disclosure: I’m Holly’s husband and her manager. I helped craft both agreements for her new position and have worked for more than two decades with hundreds of musicians across orchestras of all budget size on their individual agreements.

      • A couple thoughts. 1) Concerning travel time, I assume that when she gets to each city she still has to get to the venue each day just like all musicians, in addition to the flight to the city. Perhaps from an apartment or hotel closer than a suburb, but still travel time. 2) The concerns about this sort of pendeling aren’t “artificial,” but based on a number of practical, social, and artistic concerns.

        From a larger perspective, its seems related to the idea that not just a concert master, but even a whole orchestra can serve more than one community, like Cleveland in Miami. This has been promoted as a new model for classical music, but it too is fraught with problems.

        There are many benefits to a community when its orchestra is genuinely resident. I think the same can be said for the orchestras members being genuinely resident. A concert master, for example, also brings her capacity as a teacher and ensemble coach, and her work as a soloist and chamber musician to the community. As a genuine member of the community, they become a stronger role model for the children of the community, and the community’s artistic pride and aspirations. If the musician is a sort of “absentee artist” dropping in from the big city those benefits are naturally weakened to a significant extent.

        This perspective is readily apparent in Europe. Munich for example, has 7 full time orchestras and two full time operas. Two of the orchestras and the opera house are of world class quality. But Augsburg, a small city 45 minutes away by train, insists on having its own full time orchestra and opera house. It even has its own conservatory.

        In the densely populated Rurhgebiet, there are 11 full time opera houses within a 30 mile radius. It’s a reflection of the idea that the arts AND artists should be an integral and resident part of every community.

        It’s normal in the States for musicians to travel all over to play in part time orchestras with sparse seasons. Free lancers are often true road warriors. They often stack up enormous mileage piecing together a career. I hope Americans will consider the problems this represents. I can see the fun of leading two orchestras, and I can see why it is necessary in the States, but in my view artists like Holly deserve better, and our communities need and deserve a fuller integration and identification with their art institutions.

        I know there are no easy solutions, but I hope we can keep this as at least a distant goal.

        • Drew McManus says:

          To your first point, the time is negligible. In Chatt, she resides within walking distance. In Wichita, it’s still short and considerably less time than a commute. Holly has lived part of her career as a freeway Phil musician and the travel time, both air and ground, for both of these positions is far less and considerably less stress and expense.

          Attempting to compare Cleveland’s Miami residency with the role professional regional orchestras play is a dangerous thing to conflate. Ultimately, it looks like you’re trying to say regional orchestras should never share key artistic personnel and if so, there’s no rational basis for, nor benefits from, adopting that position.

          Holly has been performing in her role for nearly a decade and during that time she manages to do all of the activities you’ve mentioned would be precluded by not residing in the city. Consequently, how you’re arriving at those conclusions is something I don’t see and would hope you understand what you’re implying when presented here the way you have.

          I also don’t see how this situation overlaps with the mutually exclusive conversation of the German state sponsored system vs. the US nonprofit system. It’s certainly an intriguing conversation but in this context, it once again conflates the issues in a way that doesn’t benefit the topic.

          In the end, Holly is the most capable person to determine what’s in her best interests. Where she excels is helping the institutions she’s part of advance the art, become more relevant to their communities, inspire her colleagues. Her friend and colleague, acoustician Christopher Blair, said it best in a recent Facebook post in response to the announcement “Holly has long been an innovative leader in audience engagement and now she has a title acknowledging that reality.”

          Instead of using a topic to advance well worn discussions, I invite you to learn about what Holly does. She provides a remarkable degree of transparency through both her blog,, and the work through her nonprofit, Moreover, I recommend you contact the individuals and the facilities she works with and ask them how much it matters if she lives in the community where their facility is located. When you stop by the Arts Capacity website, be sure to leave a donation.

          Blue skies,

          • Resident musicians can also live within walking distance of work. I clearly outlined some of the major reasons resident artists benefit communities–a clear rational basis. It’s self-evident that the communal involvement of artists is hindered if they do not live in the community. And it is self-evident that resident artists by the fact of their residency add to communal pride and identity. Same applies to resident orchestras.

            We shouldn’t rationalize our comprises as if innovation in itself alone were a justification. Such actions can simply shore up problems without solving them. We become veterinarians for one-winged birds.

            The German comparison is important, because their sense of orchestras and communal engagement and pride is something from which we can observe and learn. We do the same thing with our major cities, but deny that same sort of pride through culture to our regional communities.

            My comments here are not about Holly and not directed toward her, but to the concepts and problems of absentee artists–a common and growing practice in the States.

            That said, I can fully understand that Wichita is happy to have her, even if a metro area of 644,000 should have a full time orchestra with all musicians resident (except for occasionally necessary subs.) That is not the reality in the States. Regional orchestras are impoverished, hence the good fortune Wichita has had in hiring Holly.

            I guess though, we’ll not agree. We come from very different angles, and approach the problems in very different ways, though we probably fully agree on the most ideal end results. Congratulations to Wichita in hiring Holly. They are most fortunate and she will certainly enrich the city’s musical life even if there only part time.

        • Jerry Stewart says:

          Having attended the Chattanooga Symphony for several seasons I can attest that our area has not experienced a lack of community engagement from Ms. Mulcahy but quite the opposite. She is a fantastic ambassador for the orchestra as well as doing outreach into prisons that is yielding heartwarming results. If anyone can pull this off, it is The Rose of Sonora.

    • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

      It’s a choice. Be an anonymous grunt in a bigger orchestra or enjoy being the star in two smaller orchestras. I would choose the latter myself.

    • Bill says:

      From the Wichita orchestra’s website: “Rehearsal and concert schedules are planned to allow for outside full-time employment.”

      • When musicians must do a day job, it means their orchestra cannot tour around their state, something desperately needed in many parts of the USA.

        • Drew McManus says:

          That’s entirely inaccurate. Regional orchestras engage in run-out performances on a regular basis. But in the end, whether the musicians have day jobs is inconsequential to whether the organization can afford the activity. That equation exists for all professional orchestras.

          • The View from America says:

            Bravo for these responses, Mr. McManus. It’s refreshing to get a “practical, on-the-ground” perspective of these issues when so often the arguments are too much of the theoretical “how many angels can dance of the head of a pin” variety.

          • No, what I say is true and is readily observable. Run outs do not solve the problems. In many states, the distances are much too far. It would take the New Mexico Philharmonic, for example, five hours to get to the state’s second largest city, Las Cruces, then another 5 hours back after playing the concert. To that would be added time for a meal and possibly a sound check. Over-nighting is is a necessity, but people have to be at work the next morning. And weekends don’t work, because some people’s day jobs include weekends. I’ve talked to the orchestra’s members many times about this problem.

            This is why many of America’s part time regional orchestras can’t adequately serve their states. They can reach communities up to maybe two hours away, but beyond that it is difficult because of the day jobs the next morning.

      • Anne Hendrix says:

        The Chattanooga Symphony and Opera also has many musicians that work full time “day jobs”. I played in the CSO as a per service musician for 34 years, with a full time teaching job, in public school, a local conservatory, and my own music education program.

  • Russell says:

    Alexander Kerr is Principle Guest Concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony and Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony.

    • drummerman says:

      Like I said…it’s very unusual. Then again, Marian Tanau is the executive director of the New Mexico Philharmonic and also a member of the 2nd violin section of the Detroit Symphony. How is that possible? Having been an orchestra ED myself for many years, I can assure you that it’s a full-time job even if the orchestra only plays once per month.

      Like I said, I wish Ms. Mulcahy well.

    • Bill says:

      Go see the principal, please…

    • foobar says:

      And a total badass. Not equal.

  • Bryan says:

    This is wonderful and also very common already. I know several people who play in three or more Bay Area orchestras at once and also have administrative duties. This seems to be more common as funding is cut from orchestras and seasons become more sparse. It’s unusual to be divided over such a long distance but I know someone who won positions in Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin and was attempting to do all three.

  • Peter says:

    Seems like a convenient enough arrangement. A quick glance indicates that the Wichita Symphony has 11 concerts scheduled for next season, with a maximum of one repetition. The Chattanooga Symphony has 16 concerts, but most are not repeated.

    In aggregate, that’s a fairly standard calendar; and any scheduling issues can be avoided by assigning particular concerts to an associate concertmaster as necessary.

    • Anon says:

      We do an average of eleven concerts a month here in London! More if on tour! Seems jammy to me…

      • And here we see a large part of the problem. Americans think their highly weakened classical music landscape is normal. As another example, a normal opera season in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., or Philadelphia would be about what a mid-sized European city would have per month. Boston, home of Harvard and MIT, ranks 250th in the world for opera performances per year. All normal for we Americans.

  • Tromba in F says:

    And it’s only a matter of time before she adds a principal trombone gig to her schedule.

  • Anon says:

    This reminds me of the tireless SF/Bay Area musicians who commute between up to 8 different regional orchestras in northern California in order to piece together a living. If you’re not a full time member of SF Symph or Opera Orch. it’s what you have to do there to survive. Like Holly, these are top, well-trained musicians. They’ve been dubbed “The Freeway Philharmonic” & there’s an excellent documentary about them:

    • Bill says:

      And for the most part, the orchestras are run in a fashion that makes this possible, because they all know and understand that it is necessary for the musicians to be able to combine the gigs to earn a living.

    • Actually, even the San Francisco Opera only has a half year season. It plans its season just long enough for the musicians to collect unemployment. That’s also why San Francisco ranks 100th in the world among cities for opera performances per year.

      Speaking of the Bay Area, in October 2001, the San Jose Symphony closed to restructure. It was unable to recover and declared bankruptcy a year later.

      The Symphony Silicon Valley took its place, but faces the usual financial and artistic limitations of regional orchestras in American. And in an area with one of the highest concentrations of wealth in the world.

    • The View from America says:

      Considering the price of real estate and the cost of living in the Bay Area, it’s little wonder.

  • MacroV says:

    It’s not unprecedented for CMs even of big orchestras to have more than one job. I recall an LSO concertmaster not long ago who also had a CM gig in Sweden. Noah Bendix-Balgley, IIRC, briefly considered keeping his Pittsburgh CM job after he won Berlin. 40 years ago Karl-Ove Mannberg was for several years CM in both Seattle and the Swedish RSO. And others have mentioned Alex Kerr (who also teaches at IU, I believe).

    To be CM of two regional orchestras whose schedules probably don’t conflict that much doesn’t seem such a stretch.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    Just curious for all the bangers. Why is this so incomprehensible?

    Why is it OK for conductors to have multiple positions but not All Star musicians who do the same?

    I have always wondered why there cannot be a system where an excellent titled player can have two or even three positions, especially if they have talented assistants who can cover the lesser concerts such as Pops, Family and run outs.

    And yes I said the word “lesser”. While these are important, most orchestras can use their bench strength to fulfill the obligation to the community and allow the bench to shine and share in the responsibility.

    I for one would like to see more of these types of arrangements where talented players who are not only performing but blogging about the industry and trying to move the art form forward share their knowledge in multiple locations.

    We need new models.

  • Ann Animus says:

    “That doesn’t mean this model doesn’t have challenges, not the least of which being less common to find one of the employers in the mix that offer benefits.”

    Lol…it’s not easy to pull off the rare quadruple-negative sentence. Only a writer of Drew’s caliber should even attempt it. 😉

  • Jill Guess says:

    We DO consider Holly part of our community in Chattanooga. We are just willing to share.

  • Alison Fujito says:

    I’ve been watching via social media Holly’s amazing ability to both entrance and educate current and potential audience members. She’s certainly leading the way for the rest of us!