Boston Philharmonic principal bass player Tony D’Amico is one of New England’s most in-demand musicians, so you may well recognize him from a number of performances outside the BPO. A small sampling of other organizations he plays with includes the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Opera Boston, Portland Symphony, the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Springfield Symphony, the North Shore Music Theatre, and the Sebago-Long Lake Chamber Music Festival of Maine every summer. BPO staff member Pamela Feo managed to catch up with him between rehearsals to talk about his thriving and diverse freelance career. Unconcerned by his cell phone constantly ringing in his coat pocket—such a busy musician rarely has a moment of peace—Tony sits back and candidly shares what his years of experience have taught him, peppering his reflections with humorous commentary.
Tony’s familiarity with the Boston music scene allows him to understand what defines the Boston Philharmonic from other groups. “Ben is what really sets the Boston Phil apart from other orchestras in Boston. He’s such a personality, and he brings his dynamism to the music—you know how Ben is! Each organization has a different vibe, and I think that has a lot to do with who’s on top.” Yet he also feels the orchestra is “democratic” compared to other groups he’s played with. “The big difference about being a musician in this orchestra is that you can write comments to the conductor,” he says, referring to the “white sheets” that are passed out at every rehearsal for players to write suggestions or opinions anonymously. “There is no way in any of the other orchestras I play with that you could speak so openly with the conductor. Ben wants us to learn the pieces together. We explore the music as a group.”
Last season, Tony got another perspective of the orchestra when he joined the staff as temporary Personnel Manager. “I’d never worked with Ben in that way and it was interesting to realize how much he values your opinion. Having done this job I have even more loyalty to the orchestra. I know how it works now, and I know how hard it is to run. And as a player, I never would have gotten to know the Chair of the Board or sat on committees. Never in a million years. Getting to know Howard [BPO General Manager] and the staff has been great.” Likewise, Tony is much appreciated in the office and is often called upon to lend his valuable insight into orchestra matters.
Tony also plays principal bass for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), the foremost contemporary music group in Boston, and Opera Boston, known for staging productions that Tony describes as “edgy.” When asked if he is drawn to this particular type of music, Tony’s response is immediate and emphatic. “Definitely. There is a real buzz about these groups and it’s very cool music to play.” He feels that Gil Rose, his friend and the director of both groups, has done an excellent job helping audiences and performers alike appreciate what is often difficult music to grasp. “There’s been a real problem with contemporary music. In the 50s and 60s, composers like Stockhausen and Babbitt started writing for themselves instead of for the public, which distanced their music somewhat from traditional audiences. I think Gil’s trying to turn that around. The music he programs—not all, but much of it, I find—is accessible and you get some kind of satisfaction from it.”
Interestingly, when Tony is having trouble getting his mind around a new piece, he returns to Mahler—the composer whose music Ben Zander is best known for conducting. “I find that whenever I’m feeling a little burnt out, I play Mahler and that centers me. I think, ‘Ah, that’s the thing.’ ” Once on the topic of Mahler, Tony is suddenly at a loss for words when he tries to describe the profundity of this music. “It’s really hard to…Mahler is very…” Tony finishes his sentence by motioning to his heart. “There’s always something that gets you with Mahler.”
According to Tony, being able to adapt your style is “the key” to a successful freelancing career. Yet when he plays in the pit for musicals, style is not the only aspect that changes. “The biggest difference is the hang,” he says, referring to the group of musicians he hangs out with in each organization. “The shows tend to use some different instruments than the Boston Phil, like saxophone and drums. These musicians have some crazy stories about being on the road. You also tend to spend more time with musicians from a show because you have eight performances a week. A show can go on for months, even years.” Instead he describes the BPO as a “living organism, always moving” because his fellow musicians change from concert to concert. “That’s a plus of being in a freelance orchestra, rather than in a symphony where you sit next to the same person for forty years—if you don’t like them, you’re in trouble.” Tony has no such trouble with his Boston Philharmonic colleagues, saying that he’s good friends with many of the musicians and calling the bass section “one of the best I play with.” Upon reflection, he adds, “You always come away from a Boston Phil concert series with a story about something goofy someone did,” in a tone that implies he might have a few good tales to tell, but he does not elaborate any further.
Tony’s easy jest belies the grueling lifestyle of a freelance musician who must divide his time and allegiances among several organizations. When asked how he juggles his work and still has time for his personal life, he jokes, “So you’re assuming I have a life!” It can be especially overwhelming when faced with a multitude of contracts that must fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, although he admits, “That’s a good problem to have. The hardest thing is in late summer when you get all your contracts. You just have to sit down with a bottle of wine and a calendar and see if you can make it work.”
Over the years, Tony has witnessed the evolution of the Boston Philharmonic, including the creation of the Discovery Series and special performances in Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall that he says have been particularly memorable. He is impressed with what he sees and is optimistic about the future. “I think there is so much potential for growth, and that’s kind of cool. I feel the orchestra is on an incline. It’s nice to play with a group that you feel is growing rather than shrinking. The Boston Phil is definitely a major part of what I do. Of all the organizations I play with, the Boston Phil is one of the most important for me. I’m proud of the fact that I’m principal bass of this orchestra. I think it’s great.”
Written by Pamela Feo