Review: Meet Bay Area's wandering minstrels of the highways

Do you need two jobs to make a living? How about holding down a dozen?

That's what violinist Karen Shinozaki has been doing for more than a decade. Here's a partial list of her concurrent employment: Santa Rosa, Berkeley and Marin symphonies, New Century Chamber Orchestra, Symphony of the Redwoods, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, Santa Rosa Chamber Players, Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players, Sor, Worn and Adorno Ensembles; she also performs as a regular extra with the San Francisco Opera and Ballet orchestras.

Listeners who attend concerts in the larger Bay Area notice the same musicians popping up everywhere. Who are these wandering minstrels? They are the heroes of “Freeway Philharmonic,” a film by Tal Skloot and Steven Baigel.

All around the country, for every large, full-time orchestra, there are dozens of small orchestras, using freelance musicians. “Pickup orchestras” thrive in the larger Bay Area, with many commuting musicians. These “road warriors of classical music” drive hundreds of miles on freeways and rural roads.

Bassoonist Karla Ekholm has 330,000 miles on her old car. Trombonist Bruce Chrisp gets vegetable oil discarded by a Chinese restaurant to power his Mercedes.

They, and the documentary's other main characters — French hornist Meredith Brown, cellists Robin Bonnell and Eugene Sor, trumpeter Kale Cumings — both hope for and dread “triple weekends.”

Bonnell explains: “10 in the morning, rehearsal in San Rafael, with the Marin Symphony; 2 o'clock, dress rehearsal in Santa Rosa, 8 o'clock, the concert. You get home at 11:30, then a rehearsal at 10the next morning, then you're out here, playing a concert at 3, another at 7:30. The next morning, there would be a rehearsal with the New Century Chamber Orchestra in the morning and afternoon, a concert at night…”

All that through traffic jams, rush-hour traffic, accidents and near-misses. And yet — while envying the stability and security of colleagues playing with big orchestras, and auditioning from time to time — musicians of the Freeway Philharmonic put their love of music into their busy lives and manage to enjoy much of it with great gusto.

Musicians in full-time orchestras, they agree, develop a particular sound and can anticipate the music’s movement and nuances because they sit next to the same person for years.

Conversely, freelancers, who rarely sit together and play together maybe once a month, can make for more spirited, more exciting performances. Also, they get to play opera, chamber music, symphonies — the kind of variety you don't get playing with just one orchestra.

The downside is mostly logistical, having to do things like color-code orchestra schedules to avoid overlaps and conflicts, not to mention drivee hundreds of miles to rehearsals and performances… and then drive right back home.

Few would do this without an overwhelming passion for what they do. If they didn't, hundreds of regional orchestras _ unable to maintain a regular staff _ wouldn't exist.

“Music is my spirituality, my personality, my ecstasy…when it's good, there's nothing better and if you can do this for a living, good gig,” says Bonnell, and he drives on.


Freeway Philharmonic


Starring Meredith Brown, Robin Bonnell, Eugene Sor, Karen Shinozaki Sor, Kale Cumings, Karla Ekholm, Bruce Chrisp

Directed and produced by Tal Skloot, Steven Baigel

Running time 1 hour

Not rated

Screens 6 p.m. Jan 27, 4 a.m. and 11 p.m. Jan. 30 on KQED-Channel 9; 7 p.m. Jan 24 at the Rafael Film Center; 7 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater.

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