Musicians in foreign orchestras – everybody is a stranger, almost everywhere

Many musicians possibly play at some time with the idea of working in a foreign orchestra. In Germany for example 27 per cent of orchestra musicians are not of German stock. The motivation for musicians to come to Europe esp. to Germany is manifold: Germany is an attractive place for professional musicians: 131 professional full time orchestras, unlimited contracts, high artistic and employment conditions, good monthly wages.

 As a musician in an orchestra abbroad?

As a musician in an orchestra abbroad?

But what are the motivations, chances and challenges for professional musicians of leaving Germany? For some, it is a matter of improving job chances, while others may seek artistic stimulation or even to do musical “development work”. In any case, the farther away, the greater the challenges, musically as well as in practical terms. There are musicians who worked in Italy, Spain or Portugal, but were eventually forced to return to Germany due to economic reasons after the latest financial troubles in those countries. Periods abroad as a musician may be challenging and sometimes tough, but musicians often emphasize the opportunity to gain experience and the sheer excitement of trying something new.

More complex are biographies where the career trajectories lead for example from ensembles in Spain to Brazil and finally New Zealand. As becomes clear, there is no such thing as a perfect work or orchestra systems and much will depend on personal temperament, but at the same time working in several countries also holds great possibilities. Less challenging proved to be the cases of young musicians who joined the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra when it was founded in 2007. With its excellent financial position, the orchestra took care of many of the practical problems usually facing ex-pats. Instead, settling in proved to be more about dealing with cultural and musical issues. Cultural aspects – of living in a Muslim society, in an absolute monarchy, of forming a new orchestra from scratch with members from 30 nations – have been a challenge, even for Kurt Meister, orchestra manager of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and previously with the Bavarian State Opera. At the same time these unfamiliar economic and political structures can also offer distinct advantages.

And how is the experience of repatriates? Having returned to Germany or any other home country after years with another orchestra, many musicians talk about some of the issues that may crop up upon return. For example, where German ensembles often offer superior musical standards, working atmosphere tends to be more formal. Repatriates often recommend gaining experience abroad, though counsel openness and flexibility.

Another experience is the incompetence of management and leadership (which can occur in every orchestra). But it hurts if musicians from abroad, who committed theirs lives for the artistic development of an orchestra, are threatened to lose their jobs first, which was the case at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO – Kuala Lumpur) in 2011.

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