This might be heresy. For one thing, orchestras really play
well technically. We could even say that orchestras have never played better, both technically, or in their understanding of musical styles. The classical music
world also tends to think that nothing’s wrong with the way we play the music.
If people aren’t coming, that’s because they aren’t educated, or we haven’t
marketed to them well enough, or we have to make our presentation a little
friendlier. We rarely think we have to play the music more distinctively.
And finally — hard though this might be to believe —
there’s nobody with any power to get orchestras play better than they do. Except
conductors, but there are limits even there. Read on, and see what I mean.
What follows, by the way, doesn’t come only from me. A
while ago I teamed up with the executive director of one of the country’s
leading orchestras, who agrees with me on much of this. We made a presentation
together to a group of musicians, administrators, and board members from several
orchestras. The discussion was lively (there’s an understatement). But we ended
up with unanimous agreement, as far as I could see.
Here are some of the questions we asked. Do orchestral
musicians come out on stage, determined to give the best performance they
possibly can? Do they look out at the audience, and say, “We’re going to give
these people something they’ll never forget”? That’s what the best performers in
other disciplines do. If you’re a performer—an actor, a standup comic, a pop
musician, an athelete—you know you’re in the business of putting on a show. Do
orchestra musicians think of that?
And by the way! Somebody’s sure to say I’m dumbing the
music down, and saying that orchestras should entertain their audience. No way.
Anyone who ever saw Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk live knows that it’s possible
to put on a killer show without acknowledging the audience at all. You just play
music so individual, so distinctive, that no one can ignore it, whether you
overtly play to listeners or not. (And in any case, a lot of classical music
was in fact written for entertainment, so why not play it that way?)
Next question. Orchestral musicians are playing music that
we think is great art. Do they approach it that way? Do they say to themselves,
“I’m going to play this Mahler symphony so vividly that nobody can ignore how
profound it is”?
And then there’s the classical music crisis. Our field is
in danger. Do orchestral musicians think of that, when they go on stage to play?
Do they think, “We might be going out of business, so I’m going to play so
unforgettably that people will kill to hear us, so powerfully that nobody will
want us to disappear”?
The answer to all these questions is pretty clearly no, or
at least “not always,” and maybe even “not often.” It depends on the orchestra,
of course. Cleveland, for instance, famously plays on the edge of its seats more
often than other orchestras, and so, by reputation, does the Berlin
Philharmonic. The musicians in the discussion started out by saying that they
depended on conductors to get them to play well, and if a conductor wasn’t up to
it, what were they supposed to do? Well, Cleveland supplies one answer. Play
your best anyway. Play better than your best. Show the conductor up.
But we know that other orchestras (everyone in the business
can supply some names) don’t do that. Some even seem happy to play badly, if
they think the conductor isn’t worthy of them. And anyway, what kind of artistic
or professional behavior is this, whether you intentionally play badly because
you don’t like the conductor, or just allow yourself to, because the conductor
isn’t good enough? Is that your responsibility to the audience, the music, and
the art form? We have to do better than that. The musicians, I thought, did come
around to this view, by the end of the evening. Certainly they unanimously
endorsed what we were saying, when we made a formal report of what we’d
My co-discussion leader, the executive director, brought up
another point. Why do musicians sit backstage talking or playing cards, until
the last moment before they go out to play? What kind of professionalism does
that show? The musicians in the discussion started by saying that they couldn’t
agree, that what they were doing before they played didn’t affect their playing.
And I’m sure that’s true, in many cases. But not all! In reply, I talked about
baseball. If I were managing a baseball team, I said, I’d want my relief
pitchers working hard in the bullpen before they came into a game. I wouldn’t
want to see anyone throw a few warmup pitches, and then start making jokes until
he was needed. Sure, if you have a star like Mariano Rivera, who reliably
delivers, then fine, whatever he wants to do is going to be all right. But for
most people, I would absolutely not, as a manager, feel confident if my players
didn’t look like they were focused.
And so the leaders of just about any collective enterprise
would think, wouldn’t they? One point I brought up was about leadership. Who in
an orchestra has the power to tell the musicians that they’re not playing well
enough? Not the executive director. My partner in this discussion had gotten
shot down by his musicians simply for bringing the question up. Not the chairman
or president of the board. Can anyone imagine a board leader going out on stage
after a rehearsal, or gathering the musicians in the green room after a concert,
and saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, that simply wasn’t good enough”? It doesn’t
So the job falls to the music director. But music directors
absolutely don’t do this, to my knowledge, about concerts that they don’t
conduct. Some people in the discussion even brought up names of music directors
whom they thought were happy when their orchestras played badly for someone
else. But the first question would be whether the music director even hears the
performances that others conduct. And even if he or she does hear them, is
anything said? Does James Levine go to the Met musicians after they’ve slogged
through some opera under the direction of some hack, and say, “That wasn’t good
enough. I know he wasn’t the best conductor, but you owe the audience, the
music, the artform, and yourselves a much better performance than that. That was
simply not acceptable. I won’t tolerate you playing that badly for anyone.”
How weird, considering the transcendent value we claim to
put on what we do, that there’s no one who has the power to say such a thing,
and actually does say it. Are we living up to our pretensions?
And one footnote about the kind of performance I’m talking
about. This applies not just to orchestras, but to everyone who plays or sings
classical music. Are performances vivid enough? Does every point inherent in the
music actually come through? When the exposition in a sonata-form movement fades
into the development, is it unmistakable to absolutely everyone that something
major has occurred? When the recapitulation starts, and the main theme of the
movement returns, is it played so vividly that nobody could miss it? When
there’s a change in mood, is it so strong that everyone can feel it, as if the
light in the hall suddenly changed?
This is what composers want. I’m a composer myself; that’s
what I want. Certainly the great composers did. The historical record — their
letters, reminiscences by people who knew them — is full of their statements to
this effect. Webern sang and danced for a pianist he was coaching, demanding
huge expressive freedom, changes in tempo and dynamics far greater than what
he’d written in his scores. I’m using him as an example because his music seems
so austere. So if he wanted this, what do we imagine Beethoven, Schumann,
Berlioz, Verdi, or Wagner wanted? Or Debussy, who, last time I looked, wrote a
three-movement evocation of the sea so vivid that it’s almost wet. Or Vivaldi,
whose music (check out how he behaved when he led performances of his operas)
was designed to wow an audience. Or Bach. Don’t you think he wanted the audience
at the edge of its seat during the cadenza in the first movement of the Fifth
Brandenburg? When he improvised on the organ, didn’t he want people to pay
attention? What do we think this music is about, anyway? Someone commented on my
book site that classical music is technical and scholarly. Did any of the
great composers really think that? Or do we just play it that way?