The LA Lawyers Philharmonic: Laying Down the Law
The Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic is bending all the rules
Conductor Gary S. Greene and members of the LA Lawyer's Phil
Photo courtesy of Michael Kohan
When concertmaster Natalia Minassian’s Blackberry sounds off during a dress rehearsal and the principal violinist ducks out to take the call, nobody skips a beat. While most orchestras wouldn’t stand for such distractions, the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic—composed entirely of lawyers, judges, law students, and paralegals—allows players to take urgent calls and miss rehearsals when work demands it.
“It’s the give and take that I think is necessary for an orchestra that is composed of professionals,” says Gary S. Greene, who founded the orchestra and serves as its conductor. “I know they don’t do it for personal reasons—it’s something that goes with the territory.”
Greene’s sensitivity to the legal commitments of his players isn’t surprising. Like them, he is a practicing attorney, as well as a violinist. Although he is unruffled by the phone calls, no-shows, and late arrivals, he’s nevertheless a demanding taskmaster when it comes to the music, making the musicians play original scores, not just the warhorses of classical repertoire.
“He expects a high level of play from us,” says Minassian, a creditors’ rights attorney who studied violin at the San Francisco
Conservatory of Music. “He doesn’t compromise just because we’re lawyers and this is a hobby.”
An energetic man with a boyish mop of hair and a wry smile, Greene grew up steeped in classical music. In 1937, his uncle, Dr. Ernst Katz, founded the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic—one of the nation’s oldest and most respected youth symphonies—and Greene spent much of his childhood at the orchestra’s rehearsals before joining in 1963. Concertmaster for several decades, Greene finally took over as conductor after his uncle died in 2009.
Although Greene had been interested in forming a lawyers orchestra for many years, a 2008 conversation with now-retired Judge Brett Klein, an accomplished trumpet player, persuaded him to take action.
Greene placed ads on the websites of two local bar associations and in two legal newspapers seeking lawyers with advanced music training and an interest in joining an orchestra. He was stunned when he received more than 100 replies from legal professionals, some of whom had trained at the finest music schools in the country.
The orchestra made its debut in January 2009. Unlike pops groups, jazz ensembles, and rock bands, full-size orchestras made up of non-professional musicians are challenging and expensive endeavors, making them difficult to organize and sustain. While Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston are all home to lawyer symphonies, New York’s legal orchestra ended its 12-year run in 2008.
Often found with a music score on his lap and a legal brief on his computer, Greene maintains his office on the second-story of a family-owned building that also doubles as the distribution center for his family’s hat business.
Although he has a studded-leather sofa in the office and a marble pen set on his desk, stacks of music scores are scattered throughout the room, and several framed articles about the orchestra’s performances lean against a bookcase filled with legal tomes.
Greene transitions between tasks with bridge-passage smoothness whether he’s talking to a client, accepting a delivery of timpani, or arranging the orchestra’s next performance. He acknowledges it takes a lot of energy to run the lawyers orchestra, but, he says, it’s worth the effort.
“The intensity of law school and a law practice makes it so that these people want some kind of an outlet,” Greene says. “If they have a musical background and a passion for music, there’s nothing more perfect than being a member of this orchestra.”
What began as a 30-member string ensemble is now a full-fledged orchestra with 200 players on the roster, covering every instrument including piccolo and bassoon. In February 2009, the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proclaimed it the city’s “only legal orchestra.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Helen Bendix, who started playing viola at age 18, says the orchestra “gives me a great respite from the tension of the court. It’s work, but it’s a different kind of concentration than you have to practice in a courtroom.”
“People never think of lawyers as creative,” Bendix adds. “They don’t think about, they don’t appreciate, how much creativity goes into crafting an argument.”
Jack Lipton, an educational law attorney who has a doctorate in psychology and is the orchestra’s principal string bass player, described the Lawyers Philharmonic as “just so different from what I do as a lawyer on a day-to-day basis. Everyone is here working together, whereas the law is so adversarial.
“Emotionally, it’s a real pleasure to be here.”
To join the LA Lawyers Phil, players must be able to sight-read music. Greene auditions players who have no formal musical training in the lobby of his office building. The orchestra holds two-and-a-half-hour rehearsals every Monday night in the nave of the ornate Wilshire United Methodist Church, which conducts services in English, Spanish, Filipino, and Korean.
Many of the players come straight from work wearing skirt suits and business attire. Several players arrive late, and the string bass players like to chat during the lulls:
“Have you ever seen so many bassoonists?” one asks.
“And there’s only five pieces of music in the world that have parts for them to play,” another replies.
But Greene, wearing a brightly colored tie with musical notes, is strictly business.
“You can’t play your own thing,” he tells the violin section, where someone keeps entering late. “If you miss the beat, don’t play. You’re better never than late!”
Despite its “hobbyist” status, these adult enthusiasts have performed 14 times in less than two years, often to raise money for law schools or community legal services.
On July 15, the orchestra presented the First Annual Habeas Musicum: A Pops Concert Extraordinaire, making its Disney Hall debut.
More than 1,500 lawyers and their guests, who received invitations to the event in the form of a legal summons, attended the two-hour concert. The orchestra performed a showy playlist including such pops favorites as “Fanfare for the Common Man” as well as pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini, Beethoven, and Bizet. It is donating 25 percent of its net proceeds to the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s AIDS, immigration, and domestic violence legal services projects.
David Waller, a divorce mediator and assistant principal cellist who has been playing music since 1946, says he practiced two to four hours a night for two months straight to get ready for the Disney Hall concert.
“We’re not top of the ladder,” Waller admits, “but we sound pretty good for a non-professional orchestra of legal professionals.”