Civil servants with a passion

The atmosphere was very cheerful on the bus transporting the City of Athens Symphony Orchestra musicians during its Spanish tour, with a lot of teasing and even a few soccer jokes. The next few nights, with the grand finale at Madrid’s National Concert Hall in the presence of Queen Sofia, these same musicians were showered with congratulations. One of the secrets of the orchestra’s success is that its musicians are young, at an average age of 30. Many have only recently acquired their diplomas, which means they are motivated and full of energy. The City of Athens is a solid institution but at the same time a bureaucratic organization that can halt young people’s enthusiasm. One cannot help but wonder if the musicians feel like civil servants. «We are civil servants, we depend on the City of Athens for our salaries, but the nature of our work does not allow us to relax,» said French horn player Spyros Fokas, who dreams of a permanent home for the capital’s music ensembles. «We are called to prove our worth every time.» Today, the City of Athens music ensembles employ 52 permanent musicians as well as 45 on contract, who hope to gain the same status as their permanent colleagues. A permanent musician may receive a 1,400-euro salary, whereas a contracted one gets just 800 euros a month. Most of the musicians have second jobs, which is legally allowed. Eleni Kamvysidi, Greece’s first woman percussionist, signed a four-month contract in December but is not bothered by her status. «I don’t know if it is because of my age or because of the huge love I have for what I do, but I always focus on the good things, on what I can give and take,» she said. Flautist Ilektra Karanikola, who spent three years in Belgium and returned to Greece because she loves her country, is another contract musician who feels positive. She has always wanted to become an orchestra musician and feels very lucky to have been chosen in the auditions, which attract a huge number of musicians for limited placements. «Only the best make it to the orchestra,» said Giorgos Katsaros, who has been director of the music ensembles for the past two years. «The crushing majority comes to us after studying in big music academies and conservatories in countries that are musically advanced. We receive many phone calls about specific candidates during the auditions, but we do not respond.» The orchestra also employs foreigners. First cellist Mirela Rucci is Albanian, a graduate of Tirana’s Art Academy who came to Greece determined to play music and was prepared to return if she didn’t make it. She has not experienced any prejudice from her colleagues, but is tortured by Greek bureaucracy and has not been paid for the last three months. Violinist Giorgos Peristeris complains that conservatories train music students to become soloists. «In an orchestra you are taught the collective spirit. It is a big deal to be bothered by somebody else’s mistake as if it were your own and that is something we experience in the orchestra.» The City of Athens Symphony Orchestra was founded in December 1996 on the initiative of then Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos. Its repertoire included classical, jazz, Greek, entechno, folk and religious music. In 2004, it was divided into the present music ensembles, namely the Symphony Orchestra, the Mixed Choir, the Big Band, the Greek Music Workshop, the De Stijl pop group, the Children’s Choir, the Strings Quartet, the Brass Winds Quintet and the Old Music Ensemble. What few people know is that all performances by the ensembles are free to the public. The Big Band, whose jazz repertoire has its own passionate fans, is currently giving a series of performances at the Roes Theater in Gazi, with the next one being March 30. The Symphony Orchestra is next scheduled to play at the Pallas Theater on April 4, May 5 and June 1.

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