On reality television, the riskiest professions are ironworker, firefighter, lumberjack and the like. These days, you can add "orchestra musician" to the list.

Being a classical player employed near the pinnacle of your profession used to be a pretty stable occupation; the average Minnesota Orchestra player has been there 18 years. But Michael Adams, who plays viola with the orchestra, has been out of work since Oct. 1. His wife, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra violinist Daria Adams, joined him in unemployment three weeks ago.

Both are locked out, neither playing nor earning a paycheck, a microcosm of the fallout from a nationwide wave of orchestras dealing with multimillion-dollar deficits. Managements contend that, because of dwindling revenues and higher costs, the artists must take significant salary cuts if the orchestras are to survive. Musicians counter that the troubles are cyclical, and there are other ways to balance budgets.

Classical musicians are often characterized in popular culture as tuxedoed hothouse flowers who work six hours a week. Some observers of the dispute say they should simply accept the proposed pay cuts -- roughly 30 percent in the case of the two Twin Cities orchestras -- at a time when belt-tightening is going on everywhere else.

But both musicians and management agree on one point: The life of an orchestra member involves more work than glamour.

"Our musicians play with passion, intensity and joy that can make it look easy, but it is far from easy," said SPCO board chair Dobson West. "Their work is both physically and mentally challenging. They work extremely hard."

A typical week for each of the Adamses -- middle-class musicians who are stalwart section players rather than stars -- includes 24 hours onstage, at least 12 hours of practice and perhaps an unpaid fundraising concert.

Now, like any other out-of-work white-collar professional, they are looking for new gigs. Michael has mailed résumés to more than 25 orchestras, and got a subbing job with the Atlanta Symphony. Both have been offered a monthlong tour in January with a West Coast orchestra, but hope the two contract disputes are resolved by then.

"For most of us, a job with someplace as great as the Minnesota Orchestra is a final destination," Michael said. "Once you make it here, you don't leave."

Orchestra 'worker bees'

The Adamses had a classical courtship, so to speak. They met in 1987 when both were playing for the Santa Fe (N.M.) Opera.

"He was in the back of the pit, wearing a pink Izod shirt and Hawaiian-print shorts, and I was in my signature red hightop Reebok sneakers," Daria said.

"That's how she remembers it, anyway," Michael said.

Coincidentally, they moved to Minnesota the same week later that year, she for the SPCO and he for a public-radio job, as he was sidelined for five years by a nerve-compression injury in his shoulder. Michael had played in lesser orchestras across the country, including Tulsa, Okla., and Colorado Springs. Daria worked as a part-time nanny and practiced seven hours a day before landing the SPCO job.

Pre-lockout, a typical workweek for both Michael and Daria included eight or so "services," a catch-all term for rehearsals and concerts.

With a smaller chamber orchestra, the pressure to play flawlessly is particularly high, Daria said, "because if you make a mistake, everyone hears it."

Rehearsals at the bigger orchestra are more jovial and relaxed, Michael said, "but the expectation of perfection is always there. The intensity is about the same as an air-traffic controller, except that if you make a mistake, no one dies."

In addition to those 24 hours a week playing onstage, each practices at home an average of two hours a day, six days a week. "We're always preparing, we always have our stock [music] on our stands," Daria said. On occasion, they also donate their time to play at fundraisers. A bit of extra income comes from teaching master classes and from Music in the Vineyards, a monthlong festival in California's Napa Valley that the couple lead every August.

Their children, ages 19, 18 and 15, are fairly independent now but the Adamses once were masters at finding prime-time baby sitters, with Friday and Saturday nights plus many a Sunday afternoon being their normal working hours.

"We had three -- one for daytime, one for weeknights and one for weekends," Daria said.

As section string players -- the "worker bees" of the orchestra -- he makes about $117,000 and she $83,000, salaries that are 10 to 15 percent below the average for their organizations. While those are enviable incomes by most American workers' standards, they're on a par with other specialized white-collar professions, including attorneys, engineers and ad executives.

They live in a middle-class Edina neighborhood of 1970s-era split-levels. Their kids attend public school (their 18-year-old son is a freshman at Brown University). They drive an 11-year-old Toyota van and a Hyundai Elantra with 135,000 miles on it.

"Nobody goes into this career for the money," Daria said.

For one thing, a classical musician's education is expensive. Michael attended a boarding school for the performing arts in Illinois, then earned a bachelor's degree at the Eastman School of Music in New York. Daria got hers at the New England Conservatory of Music, then a master's at SUNY/Stony Brook. Both were scholarship students at least part of the time, but by today's standards, that's a combined half-million dollars' worth of tuition.

They also spend $1,500 a year to maintain their instruments -- one violin, one viola and four bows. Worth a total of about $250,000, the instruments are still being paid off. Insurance isn't an issue for now; the orchestras paid the premiums before the lockouts.

The Adamses' health insurance was canceled on the day the Minnesota Orchestra lockout was announced, and they are now in a COBRA transition period. Health-care costs are a primary worry for any out-of-work parent, but their daughters have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare genetic disorder of the neuromuscular system that makes them prone to injuries, pain and fatigue. The family's monthly prescriptions run $2,500, and one daughter was recently hospitalized for two days because of a life-threatening toxic reaction to a medication.

Against all odds

Michael likens the competition for a major-orchestra seat to making it in pro football.

"Very few talented high school football players ever make it to a Division I college; fewer still make it into the NFL," he said. "The odds are similar for an aspiring high school musician to get into a top music school, and then the elite ranks of the orchestra world."

Indeed, there are about 1,700 players in the nation's top 17 orchestras -- about the same number as on NFL rosters. But open spots are much rarer, and the auditions are "brutally competitive," he said, with several dozen top-notch musicians often vying for one spot.

"These musicians have spent countless hours over many years practicing, rehearsing and performing -- not just perfecting their own skills but learning how to play together to create the incredible sound the audience hears," said SPCO board chair West.

Michael argues that orchestra members' skills are less transferable than those of most workers, because their organization's success depends on them performing perfectly in tune with a very specific group of colleagues.

If a group of replacement musicians of the same caliber were thrown together at the last minute, he said, "in truth, you could get a pretty respectable result." But to maintain the performance quality that the Minnesota Orchestra is known for, "the first-violin section, about 18 players, must execute tiny details of timing, phrasing, bow strokes, vibrato and intonation exactly together. We've learned how to jell into a homogenous, disciplined unit."

The orchestras' economic plights leave the Adamses' hard-won classical careers in jeopardy. Their daughters are serious about music, however, and the younger girl is training to be an opera singer. Both parents said they wouldn't discourage classical music as a career choice.

"It's too important a job," Daria said. "It's fulfilling, it's giving back to the world."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046