Philadelphia Orchestra principal trumpeter takes post in Georgia


The Philadelphia Orchestra - in the midst of tough contract talks with musicians and a related chapter 11 petition - is losing some of its best players. Principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales has accepted the same post with the New York Philharmonic, and cellist Efe Baltacıgil is leaving to become principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Now, the orchestra's principal trumpeter, David Bilger, has accepted a two-year visiting professorship at the University of Georgia. He'll continue as a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, but is cutting back on his number of weeks. Bilger's thinking behind his decision is nuanced and, to be frank, elegiac. Rather than paraphrase, I'll let him tell the story himself. Here's his letter to me (published with his permission):

Hi Peter -

I have indeed accepted the position as Visiting Professor of Music and William F. and Pamela P. Prokasy Professor in the Arts at the University of Georgia, beginning immediately. I will continue my important work at the Curtis Institute of Music, as well as my teaching at Temple University. I will also be fulfilling most of my obligations with the POA.

I will be commuting on a regular basis to Athens, Georgia, to work with the talented students there. The management of the POA, and the administration at UGA were extremely generous and flexible in allowing me to schedule my work in both cities. I will be missing 4 subscription weeks in Philadelphia during the 11-12 season, and I was able to carefully identify, and arrange leave for, the weeks that are the least artistically demanding for the trumpet. I also, unfortunately, had to withdraw from performing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2 in November. That piece is quite specialized, and requires a commitment of preparation time that I do not feel I can offer given my schedule. I would never go on stage without being able to offer the audience my best effort, so I was forced to withdraw.

For quite some time I have had my eye on the University of Georgia, and had hoped that a position would be open when it was time for me to retire from the POA. Quite sadly, Fred Mills (formerly of the Canadian Brass) held the Prokasy Professorship at UGA, and died in a car accident in 2009, which left the faculty position open much sooner than I had anticipated.

It would be disingenuous of me not to admit to you that pursuing the position at UGA at this point in my career was a response to the current difficulties and uncertainties at the POA. In fact, it would have been irresponsible of me NOT to be looking for career opportunities elsewhere. Previously, I had always believed that I would retire from playing as a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. But now, given the uncertain financial future of the orchestra, it is imperative to reassess my career options.

One of the more vocal members of the POA Board of Directors has stated on many occasions that the musicians of the orchestra won't leave, no matter what sort of contract (and pension) is offered to us. He has flatly stated, "Where will they go?" If he were to be commenting on the unmatched artistic quality of the Philadelphia Orchestra, I wouldn't argue with him. Where else can one listen to an artist like Dick Woodhams play every day? Making music in the Philadelphia Orchestra is indeed a sublime experience. However, the board member's point has only to do with his perception of the limited employment opportunities in the arts, and it is not a statement of affirmation about our orchestra. Personally, I know of several titled players in the orchestra who have been reached out to by other orchestras and educational institutions. Contrary to what this board member thinks, there are indeed other places to go.

I shouldn't go into my personal issues with the Strategic Plan. Suffice it to say that I am worried not only about the fiscal problems facing the orchestra, but also the artistic fallout. You have written quite instinctively about the "Plan." I appreciate your insights, and agree with many of your assessments. Thank you for your thoughtful writing.

Peter, I want to be clear that I want the best for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Only time will tell what the future will bring to this extraordinary group of musicians, and how my life will intersect with the future of the institution. For now I will continue to share what I do with the orchestra's loyal patrons, and work to share what I know about music with the next generation of trumpet players, hopefully encouraging those students to achieve their potential as performers, and to also be ambassadors for the arts.

Dave Bilger