Do orchestras play well enough?

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 discussed.

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 happen.

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?

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  1. Unimpressed in New York says

    I’m reading this in 2009, long after you posted this. But it reminds me of the time, a few years ago, when someone from the New York Philharmonic called to see whether I’d like to renew my subscription. In 2003-2004 I bought one of those “make-your-own-series” subscriptions; it cost me about $700. One of the programs opened with the Egmont overture, one of my favorites.

    I told the guy on the phone, “Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic did the impossible — they made Beethoven’s Egmont overture sound dull.”

    He chuckled. I wasn’t kidding.

    I hung up.

    I won’t miss the Berlin Philharmonic when they’re in town, and I wouldn’t miss the New York Philharmonic if they left town and never came back.