Food & Culture
Amazon’s Symphony Orchestra: It’s a Corporate Gig
The volunteer group of the corporation's employees started two years ago and plays concerts throughout the year
By Gavin Borchert & Gwendolyn Elliott May 1, 2019
Room 302 in Amazon’s Doppler Building is much like any other conference room in any other downtown glass box: whiteboards, folding walls, black stacking chairs. But most such meeting rooms aren’t filled, as this one is on this Tuesday evening in February, with several dozen music stands, each bearing a sticker with the initials “ASO” undergirded by a very familiar yellow smiling arrow.
And most such meeting rooms don’t include 60 or so musicians, instruments warm and ready, taking their first crack at Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. But this is the rehearsal space for the Amazon Symphony Orchestra (ASO), a volunteer group of the corporation’s employees who meet two hours weekly to explore a side of their creativity that doesn’t have a 9-to-5 outlet. Music director Hsing-Hui Hsu, a software development engineer who was a clarinet performance major at Rice University, precedes her downbeat with a little history about the 1889 symphony, explaining that the folk-like tunes and pastoral flavor of the Eighth seem to represent Dvořák’s Czech homeland, in contrast to his popular Ninth Symphony, which he wrote during summer vacations in Iowa and filled with his musical impressions of America.
Hsu raises her batonless hands and begins the rehearsal, handling it deftly: here, stopping to fix a problem; there, forging on to let the players get a feel for the music’s continuity. Sometimes her advice is practical: asking the cellos in the symphony’s lush opening melody to “keep it very legato, pay attention to those swells” and making sure the first trombone knows it’s his responsibility, in bar 16, to shift the music from minor to major. Sometimes her guidance is fanciful, comparing a flute solo to birdsong. And sometimes it’s even physical, as she asks all the wind players to stand up, stretch and breathe together to facilitate one dovetailing passage that is causing coordination problems. Sounding notably stronger with every retake, the orchestra responds attentively and professionally to its leader.
Hsu is just one of the dozens of Amazon employees who pursued music in high school or college but decided that a performance career wasn’t the right path. Two years ago, another one of these employees, oboist and applied scientist Wenduo Wang, launched an in-house email thread seeking classical music enthusiasts. Perhaps not surprisingly, their first step was to build an organizational foundation—a board. Bassoonist Beau Curran was its first chair, Fred Clarke was the ensemble’s first conductor, and the first rehearsal drew 40 people. But simply gathering to play wouldn’t sustain the group: “It’s fun for the first few weeks, but then what?” violist/vice-chair Lauren Yu remembers thinking.
The musicians needed a motivating goal, and a concert series was the obvious one. That first performance, in May 2017, drew an audience of 500, and now the ASO gives four public performances a year, on Halloween, in December and sometime in the spring and summer. Their December holiday show has become a fundraiser for Mary’s Place, raising $18,000 in 2017 and $22,000 last winter. The 1,000-seat Amazon Meeting Center was filled for the December 11, 2018 event, and the orchestra, in a uniform of jeans and black T-shirts, numbered 80 (including a hefty 16 brass players and seven flutes) for a festive menu of carols, excerpts from The Nutcracker and a sing-along finale. The ASO also played at the closing ceremony of last July’s 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, held in Seattle, and chamber ensembles from the orchestra serenade the visitors at Amazon’s “Take Your Kids to Work” Day.
IT’S A CORPORATE GIG: The ASO performing at the Special Olympics Closing Ceremony in Seattle last year
Hsu and the three others on the conducting staff—vendor manager Josh Tuckman, technical recruiter Christina Oaks and software development engineer DG Kim—share the power to choose concert repertory with the players. Work on their next concert, May 31, started with reading through a number of pieces, which are challenging standard orchestral repertory rather than student fare. In addition to the Dvořák—tuneful and bucolic, with a headlong, standing-O-guaranteeing finale—they settled on Beethoven’s glowering Egmont Overture, the sultry and sinuous “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Delilah, and the last movement from Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The soloist, Elliot Pearl-Sacks, one of three featured this season, was chosen via the ASO’s Concerto Competition, giving especially talented players an opportunity to take the spotlight.
The creative outlet and change of pace—at a company with a reputation for having a high-stress environment—are, of course, draws for the musicians, but networking is, too: the chance to “meet people from other parts of the company,” says Hsu, “and socialize over a common interest that isn’t work.” And for a company that employs so many people from overseas, the ASO offers a welcoming embrace; Hsu recalls one player telling her, “This really helped me settle more into Seattle.” Probably the most eloquent testimony to the benefits of the orchestra came from Tuckman at the holiday concert, when he recognized it as “an excellent opportunity for those of us who thought music was gone from our lives.”
The Amazon Symphony Orchestra holds its free spring concert May 31 at 7 p.m. in the Amazon Meeting Center in the Doppler building at 2021 Seventh Ave.
In addition to the orchestra, the Amazon holiday concert also featured its 13-member choir and nine-member a cappella group, plus a women’s vocal ensemble from Mary’s Place.
The Amazon Orchestra is not the only local ensemble with its roots in the corporate world, but two others have gone the independent route. Established in 1983 as the Boeing Employees’ Concert Orchestra, the group changed its legal name to the Orchestra of Flight in 1992, and in 2016 became independent of the Boeing Company, although it still includes a handful of current employees and retirees among its 40 or so members. Music director Matthew Kruse has chosen music by Schubert, Vivaldi, John Williams and others for its spring concerts at Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle on May 13, and Arbor Village Senior Living in Kent on May 18. (For details, see orchestraofflight.org.) And the erstwhile Microsoft Orchestra expanded into the Kirkland Civic Orchestra, still led (since 2004) by Microsoft senior tester James Truher. The KCO closes its fifth season of independence with music by Whitacre, Debussy and Vaughan Williams on May 19 at Northwest University’s Butterfield Chapel in Kirkland. (Find out more at kirklandorchestra.org.)
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated since print publication.
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