Hidden from small

Michelle Zwi - In the Spotlight

October 02, 2019

A Monthly Profile of Orchestra Fans and Family

Are you reading this in Verizon Hall, waiting for the concert to start? If so, pay close attention just before the house lights go down. As the musicians get ready to tune, before the conductor strides on stage, see if you can spot the woman looking around—maybe stage right, behind the piano or percussion—checking to make sure everything’s in place. If she has long dark hair, that’s Michelle Zwi, the Orchestra’s associate personnel manager, and when she’s working, things don’t get started until she says so.

“If you’re a regular at the orchestra, you’ve seen me walking around stage making sure musicians are in their chairs and ready to go,” says Michelle. “Some of the most human and beautiful moments are in that 40-second period after I give the OK for the lights to go down, when they’re about to tune, and the Orchestra’s quiet and it’s just the core operations staff, the conductor, and the soloist backstage. It’s a little dark, it’s quiet, and it’s filled with a super-intense energy.”

Michelle describes her job as a cross between human resources and artist management. “Personnel is responsible for letting the Orchestra members know what, when, and where they’re playing,” she says. She coordinates auditions, manages payroll and other administrative tasks, travels with the Orchestra on tour and to Vail and Saratoga, keeps concerts and rehearsals running on schedule, and hires subs and extra musicians. Short a violinist? If someone’s out sick, it’s Michelle’s job to make sure a replacement is in that seat.

“It’s like this administrative jigsaw puzzle,” she says, of keeping track of 100 moving pieces—each with their own distinct personality. “Luckily I love puzzles!”

Michelle’s background makes her a perfect fit for the position. A conservatory-trained oboist, she had a decade-long career as a professional musician. (You can hear her on pianist Gabriela Montero’s Latin Grammy-winning Ex Patria recording with the Orchestra of the Americas, and on the soundtrack of the video game Final Fantasy XV.)

She understands “the nitty-gritty” of a musician’s day-to-day life. But, she stresses, she’s just one part of a phenomenal operations team that includes production, logistics, and personnel.

“It really takes a village,” she says. “Only with our combined efforts can we help make this beautiful music happen.”

A Brazilian-American who was raised in the D.C. area, Michelle spent her junior and senior years of high school in Brazil, where she had plenty of exposure to The Philadelphia Orchestra thanks to the stacks of CDs in her grandparents’ homes. She also—at age 15—formed an ensemble that played in the São Paulo neighborhoods known as favelas. She coordinated the performances and the fundraising. “It was my first taste of ensemble management, and I loved it!”

Even while pursuing a career as an oboist, Michelle kept her hand in administration, managing external performances at the Boston and New England conservatories, as well as the freelance schedules of musician colleagues. Eventually, she turned to management full-time. She was orchestra manager at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina when her husband came to Philadelphia for medical school. Shortly after, her current Philadelphia Orchestra job opened up. It was kismet.

Oh, and she got another job: managing—in her spare time—the Penn Med Symphony Orchestra, a volunteer ensemble comprised of doctors and medical professionals. Her husband is a percussionist; Michelle is executive director. Many of the volunteer musicians, she says, are regular Philadelphia Orchestra subscribers and religious attendees of the pre-concert talks. (“It’s nice to see #yourphilorch in action!”)

“It’s lovely to see these people who have no free time, as is, devoting a few hours each week to just play music for the joy of it.”

Michelle says one of the best parts of her job—which she’s had for almost three years now—has been getting to know all the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians. “In the end we’re all just people trying to make something beautiful, and knowing and having a fondness for the individuals behind the music I think makes the music better.”

Being backstage in those electrifying moments before the music starts means Michelle is privy to some interesting pre-concert rituals. Some conductors will hop three times before taking the stage. Some will untie and tie their watch. Some will do a plank or push-up. “Those little glimpses into the individual humanity of the artist are really special.”

She has lots of good behind-the-scenes stories, but is too discreet (i.e. too good at her job) to reveal most of them.

“I’m acutely aware of the privilege that accompanies this job,” Michelle says.

“This week the Orchestra was rehearsing a program with pieces that I’m particularly fond of, and I just sat in the audience during the rehearsal enraptured by what I was hearing. The privilege of being able to hear this music, to be backstage during every rehearsal and performance and have this art always in the background, is the reason I come to work every day. It is by far the best part of my job.”