SEATTLE—Minutes into a rehearsal of Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute” one recent evening, Amazon software development engineer Hsing-Hui Hsu waved her arms from the box she stood on. The music inside the fluorescent-lit conference room stopped.
“Play it at half of that dynamic, now half of that dynamic, and now half that,” she instructed dozens of colleagues sitting behind their music stands. “Yeah!” she shouted as the volume dropped. “We’re in the final two weeks,” she reminded them of the time before their next public concert at the Amazon Meeting Center. Nearly 500 people would be attending.
In the city that birthed grunge and was home to acts such as Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, the latest musical sensation is the Amazon Symphony Orchestra.
With a repertoire ranging from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 to Disney’s “Frozen,” Amazon’s nearly 100-employee orchestra is one of a number of acts following in the corporate music-tradition of old industry giants like Boeing Co. and Eastman Kodak Co.
Now, a new generation of company ensembles is getting the work band back together: Google has its Google Orchestra and Salesforce Inc. has an a cappella group, “Cloudy with a Chance of Beatbox.” Sometimes, corporate ethos and music blur together.
The Amazon orchestra’s board, all employee-musicians, often bandies Amazon mantras such as “customer obsession” and “invent tirelessly” in planning discussions, says Lauren Yu, a software-development engineer who heads the orchestra’s board and plays the viola. Ms. Yu says the board sees its musicians as customers.
After each performance, the Amazon orchestra sends its musicians a survey asking them to rate the difficulty of each piece played and their level of preparedness. The feedback helps the orchestra choose the music lineup for its next concerts, says Ms. Yu.
Musicians come from all corners of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, many of them former high-school band geeks or music majors. Ms. Hsu, the conductor and director, studied clarinet performance in college before training in coding. Some employees not in the orchestra also are musically inclined: Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of operations, was a middle-school band teacher in a prior life and played tuba and saxophone.
Some of its oboists are Amazonians orchestra co-founder Beau Buchanan—a technical account manager in his day job—found by forming a group on Amazon’s internal directory called #OboeYouDidnt. Christina Oaks, a technical recruiter who doubles as first-chair flutist, says she brags about the orchestra whenever possible, including while hiring.
“Even if it doesn’t fit into the conversation, I’ll sneak it in if I can,” she says.
The group performs about four public concerts per year, mostly free and at the Amazon Meeting Center.
Google’s orchestra doesn’t officially play to the public. Its eight or so performances a year—either in large meeting spaces or on outdoor patios at the company’s Mountain View and Sunnyvale campuses in California—have become hot tickets. Most concert-goers are fellow Googlers, but some visitors have friends or family who work at Google get them in, say those who have gone to performances.
Like at Amazon, the Google orchestra uses regular surveys to “shape our vision and culture,” polling its musicians to understand their motivations and which pieces they enjoy best, says Kay Saito, a Google marketing analytics manager who plays flute and heads the orchestra’s board. “We love data,” she says.
Some corporate-musical ensembles perform in service of their companies. Cloud-software giant Salesforce’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Beatbox,” formed in 2018, took the stage last year at Salesforce’s Dreamforce convention, an event that drew 170,000 customers and other attendees to discuss technology and hear from speakers such as former President Barack Obama. The group performed a rendition of Queen’s “Somebody to Love.”
It’s understood that work can always interrupt the music. At the Texas Medical Center Orchestra in Houston, some of the doctors and other health-care professionals who belong have attended rehearsals in bloody scrubs, says its Juilliard School-trained director, Libi Lebel. On occasion, members have rushed out of rehearsal to attend to a patient or deliver a baby.
The award-winning orchestra, which has performed at Carnegie Hall as well as Houston Methodist Hospital’s lobby, has become so competitive for certain instruments that earning a spot in its woodwinds section can take years of auditions, Ms. Lebel says. When one physician didn’t make the cut, he angrily emailed multiple hospital executives to complain, she says. “Some people take it very painfully,” she adds.
Company musical ensembles date at least to the 19th century, when coal mines throughout Britain had brass bands, many supported by mining companies, says Jesse Rosen, chief executive of the League of American Orchestras.
Some 20th-century acts still playing include the Boeing Employees Choir, which went on a six-city tour across Portugal and Spain this fall. It more regularly sings at Seattle-area retirement centers.
The Procter & Gamble Big Band, started in the 1980s, performs everything from Duke Ellington classics to songs from Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé, often in the lobby of the company’s Cincinnati headquarters, says Steve Glassmeyer, the group’s director and a project manager in corporate research and development at P&G. The big-band swing group’s showcase is an hourlong concert on stage during the consumer product giant’s annual “Dividend Day,” held at an Ohio amusement park and timed for the company’s dividend payout in the fall.
A few have outlived their corporate ties, surviving layoffs, restructurings and funding cuts. The Kodak Concert Band, founded in 1980, keeps going today though nearly all of its members no longer work at Eastman Kodak, says Donna Mero, a 35-year piccolo player and the band librarian. The Hewlett-Packard Symphony Orchestra, started by employees in 1993, split from the company in 2008, changing its name the next year to “The Group Formerly Known as The HP Symphony.”
Now called the South Bay Philharmonic and still performing in the San Francisco-area, the orchestra strives to embrace anyone who wants to play, says George Yefchak, a former HP employee and its current music director. “We never had any intention of being good,” he says.
Amazon’s orchestra aims for more. Surrounded by white boards in the room where it rehearses two hours nearly every Tuesday, the group was tackling a passage from Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem “The Moldau.” As Ms. Hsu cupped her hands and whispered “shhhh,” the music fell to a hush. During “The Magic Flute” run-through, she urged the woodwind section to hit a note “like you’re striking a match,” then recede.
The intensive preparation can pay off with high praise from fans in the know.
Yet Ms. Hsu says some of her colleagues and Seattle friends express shock the orchestra even exists, she says. “‘They’re like, wait, you have a what?’”
Write to Chip Cutter at [email protected]
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