The taxing life of a US concertmaster

The taxing life of a US concertmaster


norman lebrecht

October 26, 2020

A report caught our eye that the concertmaster of La Crosse Symphony Orchestra, Wes Luke, jumped in as soloist in a Bach concerto when the invited star, Tai Murray, failed to turn make it.

In addition to his leadership during at La Crosse, Wes Luke is also a section violinist in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and principal second violinist of the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra. He regularly plays in the Wisconsin Philharmonic and is on the teaching faculties of the University of Dubuque, Loras College in Dubuque and Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.

It tough making a living on the violin out there.



  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    There are many talented violinists who prefer this type of life where they get solo opportunities, play chamber music, and have a vibrant teaching studio.

    For them, it’s a more challenging life than sitting in the back of a section of a top orchestra and grinding it out on a daily basis.

    • Anon says:

      Rather, there are many talented violinists out there who will never win an audition for a “top” orchestra, or indeed, any orchestra that pays a salary approaching a “living wage” or middle class income. Similarly, there are many talented, accomplished violinists who will never have a teaching studio, vibrant or not, even at mid-level music institutions like the University of Wisconsin or University of Iowa, the state institutions closest to the above “concertmasters” stomping grounds. They end up as adjuncts with a handful of students at multiple small colleges.

      Let’s get real. Some of those “grinding it out” in top orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony also conduct community orchestras, play chamber music, have gigs on secondary instruments and teach select students privately or at institutions much more exclusive than small colleges in Iowa. This is their choice and preference, not a necessity to support their income.

      A more realistic view of Mr Luke’s career is a scramble similar to that of many fine US violinists to pay the rent through a wages earned via fiddle playing. Nothing unusual. Norman, you can find the above scenario replicated all over the US.

  • Anon says:

    What’s the issue? What’s tough?
    Sounds like this kid does quite well for himself, certainly better than most.
    I’m sure the income from three separate teaching positions (streaming lessons online) is a great help during Covid.
    It’s probably quite inexpensive to live wherever over there he lives too.

    • Sharon says:

      Part time adjunct professors make salaries equivalent to serfs or indentured servants. Furthermore they get no benefits. Luke probably has to pay for private health insurance, thousands of dollars a year even with the American affordable care act.

      • John Marks says:

        Dear Sharon,

        I was an adjunct (“Visiting Lecturer”) for 26 years at Thomas More College in NH USA, and you nailed it. Fortunately, I had a separate income, but, if I had not… .


    • Alto4All says:

      I am a colleague of Mr. Luke. Your assumptions are mostly incorrect. It is certainly not inexpensive to live here. And while he may not be hurting, its because he works ALL THE TIME. Despite his youthful exuberance, Mr. Luke is not a kid. I would advise you to think a bit more before dismissing an artist in such a callous manner.

  • Monty Earleman says:

    “And in his spare time…..”

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I would not be surprised if he hadn’t been playing the solo part during rehearsals. It isn’t uncommon for a section member or principal to do that for concerto rehearsals.

    I am sure it is a struggle to make a go of it in the classical music version of a gig economy anywhere, but away from the big cities those gigs get mighty spread out. Consider this: Dubuque Iowa is about 120 miles from La Crosse, about 90 miles from Madison WI and about 160 miles from Waukesha which is where the Wisconsin Philharmonic (formerly and the Waukesha Symphony) plays. And once winter hits some of those miles are on very treacherous roads for snow and wind. You have to do some careful calculating before accepting just any job, while always aware that there are costs to ever saying “no.”

    Some of these folks might have to prepare for wildly different programs all taking place in the same week. Sure, sometimes the better (i.e. the more expensive) they are they only have to show up for the dress rehearsal (unlikely for a concertmaster but I have seen it done) but the music still has to be prepared. In this case the program was Sibelius Andante Festivo, the Bach Concerto No. 2 in E, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. The Tchaikovsky in particular would need some woodshedding. And the Bach; E Major means this isn’t the easiest concerto to keep in your fingers. A Minor is a somewhat more finger friendly key.

    • Joseph says:

      Another aspect of this situation — colleges like Loras, the University of Dubuque, and Epworth are fortunate indeed to have an adjunct instructor of this level on their faculty. The instruction his students receive from him will enrich their entire lives. There are indeed many exceedingly fine musicians throughout the Midwest who piece together a career exactly like this.

      • Bruce says:

        Not only in the Midwest. Every area with a big city usually has lots of small orchestras and small colleges. Ask any working musician in southern (or northern) California, or up & down the Eastern Seaboard.

  • Mike Dobson says:

    What is the problem here ? Norman broadcasts for BBC, writes record reviews, pieces in The Spectator and so forth.

  • I Walk The Walk says:

    Life is tough for everybody. Sorry not sorry.

  • I Walk The Walk says:

    The expression in French is “mes vingt ans” meaning, it’s fine when one is between 20 and 40. Then what?

  • NEC Grad says:

    Handsome fella!

  • Maitreyee Paula Sarkar says:

    A word is missing? “It tough making a living on the violin out there.”

  • Fiddlist says:

    It is when your highest-profile gig is in a place named La Crosse. Sorry, that sounds rude, but please, let’s not generalize based on a Wisconsin city with a population of 52,000 people…

  • BLM says:

    The bigger issue is that the LaCrosse Symphony programmed the ONLY BIPOC guest artist of this season (but more likely the only BIPOC the orchestra will ever program) and failed to come through. Stereotypical mindset of administrators and music directors these days. Program one BIPOC to make themselves feel good as a publicity stunt. Instead of making an effort to find another BIPOC to perform in her place, they found a young WHITE MALE to step in. Let’s celebrate all of the wonderful BIPOC in classical music and stop glorifying the careers of WHITE MEN. The infuriation of this led me to look at the rest of their season of the Lacrosse Symphony. Every single guest artist is a WHITE MALE. What are they thinking? How could they do this as an orchestra three hours away from where GEORGE FLOYD was murdered???

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Did I misread? I thought it was the guest artist who “failed to come through” and show up for the job for which they were contracted. It wasn’t the orchestra playing bait and switch.

      On how much notice? Do you know? I don’t but the fact that the concertmaster steps in, and not another soloist suggested by artist management (fond of fees, after all), suggests to me it was short notice.

      As far as Tai Murray being the only BIPOC the orchestra will ever program, did you look at the list of past soloists I provided in my prior posting? Seth McCoy, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Shirley Verrett. (Of course what orchestra on earth would NOT want to feature those names?)
      Nonetheless ….

      And note that the “guest” soloist for their second concert is … their own principal clarinet (Copland Concerto). Their third and evidently final concert of the season has no soloists named. Their concerts are deliberately short, with limited seating, and masks required. The way I read the season on the orchestra website Tai Murray was going to be the only expensive and true “guest” soloist of this truncated season.

  • Madison Violinist says:

    Just chiming in to say that I’m proud to know Wes. He’s a hard-working, fabulous musician, and he is also a good mensch who is a wonderful leader in our music community. Just this summer, he organized a series of socially distanced, outdoor performances where musicians from the Madison area got together and performed for people passing by. He genuinely cares about lifting others up, and he invited a variety of people to take turns playing solo parts when we performed Vivaldi and Bach violin concertos. We all appreciated getting to play with other people safely during a time when a pandemic has put a hold on our usual orchestral opportunities.

  • Amy says:

    Who edited this article? Tai Murray failed “to turn make it” and “it tough” making a living out there?