Saratoga Springs

Librarian helps keep Philadelphia Orchestra running smoothly

'The starting point is the Philadelphia sound'
Robert Grossman has a vital but largely unseen role with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is the organization's librarian.
Robert Grossman has a vital but largely unseen role with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is the organization's librarian.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — You’ve probably seen Robert Grossman without realizing who he is because he has one of the most important yet least visible jobs at the Philadelphia Orchestra. He’s the orchestra’s librarian.

His duties, among others, include researching and obtaining the scores and instrumental parts to all the pieces that music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin and guest conductors will perform during the season; marking all bowings, phrases and dynamics in the string parts that the music director wants; putting the instrumental parts into folders for each concert and placing them on the stands of the players; and putting the score for the first piece on a concert on the conductor’s podium, always opening it to its first page. (The assistant first violist performs that job for subsequent pieces.)

Grossman also travels with the orchestra and he oversees a budget that includes $200,000 to cover payment for licensing fees for pieces that are not in the public domain, and $100,000 for purchasing new pieces, such as all the arias to be performed  Aug. 19. Administrative fees are covered under the musicians’ contract with the musicians’ union. 

However, what has changed his job, which he has held since 1978, is Nezet-Seguin, who became music director in 2012. 

“Yannick’s current approach is more expansive than creative,” Grossman said. “There are different artists and guest conductors, a new repertoire and style. The sounds are new with new interpretations and the musicianship is different. He’s also the first conductor who has come up to the library [a 3,000-square foot space on the second floor of the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia] and pulled parts. He’s very hands-on.”

Nezet-Seguin prefers the scores that the publishing industry has been introducing called urtexts. These scores and their parts are said to reflect the actual phrases, dynamics and notes the composer wrote. Among the composers who are getting urtext editions are Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bach, Schumann, Wagner, Sibelius and Mahler. 

Although the Philadelphia owns more than 5,000 scores and their instrumental parts in the public domain and has another 5,000 scores for pieces written since 1926 whose parts must be rented, this means Grossman is starting with a clean slate when working with the urtext editions. The orchestra always keeps two scores and sets of parts: one for Nezet-Seguin’s use and one for the guest conductors.

“We’re not taking 40-year-old parts and putting in new bowings,” Grossman said. “Rather, there are three new ways this is done: Yannick marks his score and we transfer everything to the parts; or he marks only the principals’ parts (concertmaster, second violin, viola, cello, bass); or, because we understand his approach, he lets the principals work together to produce a bow master. They now have regular meetings to look at all the music. Yannick likes the orchestra to be prepared. He’d rather spend time in rehearsals getting into interpretive issues.”

Nezet-Seguin’s choices are also transferred to the guest conductors’ scores.

“The starting point is the Philadelphia sound. We will accommodate a guest conductor’s way but only if it’s compatible with what Yannick wants,” Grossman said. “If a guest has a really special way he wants a piece to sound, he brings his own score and parts. It’s all a tremendous amount of work.”

Technology has also changed Grossman’s job. Besides coordinating with other orchestras that Nezet-Seguin conducts, often scanning in bow masters for pieces that he’s performing, emailing has helped save money. 

In preparing for Marin Alsop’s concert Aug. 10, it was discovered that an arrangement of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture” required two synthesizers.

“We sent her the score and asked her whether she wanted to use one or two synthesizers, since a previous performance had used only one,” Grossman said.

Meanwhile, Grossman was figuring out where they’d have to get the instruments, where to store them, and who would play them. After several emails, Alsop said she didn’t want to use any synthesizers.

“We saved $1,000 on rentals, a safe, an amp, performers,” he said. “In the old days, we wouldn’t have known that until the morning rehearsal.”

Desperation almost set in earlier this summer when the orchestra was doing its weeklong residency in Vail, Colorado. Stravinsky’s “Petruska,” which will be performed at SPAC on Aug. 18, was scheduled, but Nezet-Seguin could not find his score. Neither could Grossman, who brings footlockers of music when the orchestra tours.

“With his incredible memory and we’d just recorded it — I thought maybe he could get by with another score,” Grossman said. “But he wanted his score with all his markings.”

Calls back to Philadelphia turned up the score, which was in Nezet-Seguin’s office and had not been returned to the library.

“So my part-time assistant scanned in the 148-page score — each page was 9 inches by 12 inches and had to be photocopied to reduce the image before the page could be sent,” he said. “But I couldn’t get it on my server, the file was too big. So it was sent to the hotel’s server and their office printed it out. I put it into a three-ring loose binder and gave it to Yannick for the morning rehearsal.”

Meanwhile, Grossman’s assistant FedExed the actual score overnight. It arrived by the end of the rehearsal.

“Yannick was a sweetheart about it all,” Grossman said. “But there are so many moving pieces now and Yannick has really stepped up the pace. The workload has expanded.”

Fortunately, Grossman has help with one full time assistant, one part-time assistant, and occasional interns who are learning the ropes through the orchestra’s two-year librarian program, who graduate to work as librarians with other orchestras.

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