If Dan is the new face and “parent” of the CSO, the musicians are her family, James says, and Dempsey agrees. They are a tight-knit group who form close relationships over the years, both tell me.
“There’s not been a lot of turnover until this year,” Dempsey adds. “Most of us have been together for the past 10 years.”
The exodus this season is uncommon, but not unprecedented. Despite their comfort or relative security, classical musicians are not without aspirations.
“Some climb the ladder,” Dempsey says, “looking for higher pay or playing with ‘The Big Five’ in New York—that’s a dream for many musicians.”
Dempsey and James, like many of their colleagues, find fulfillment outside their roles with the CSO in the off season. “We all do other things,” Dempsey, who is also the CSO’s co-orchestral librarian, says. It’s a position she enjoys and one she says she’d pursue professionally if she didn’t play. In addition to her heavy off-season performance schedule, Dempsey acts as head librarian for the Aspen Music Festival.
James substitutes with the Huntsville Symphony and is the adjunct horn instructor at UTC, Lee University, Southern Adventist University and Covenant College, as well as acting as secretary/treasurer of the local chapter of the Chattanooga Musicians Union.
While the annual challenges of funding, salary and benefits confront classical musicians as they do everyone, both see a silver lining. Dempsey says that of graduating classical musicians each year, one in 600 secure a chair with one of the nation’s orchestras, a statistic that raises the bar.
“[Classical] musicians tend to stay with one orchestra, and the quality goes up,” she says.