Sometime in the past year I heard an indifferent performance of a familiar symphony, by a major orchestra. Doesn’t matter where or when, doesn’t matter who the conductor was. There was no nuance, no joy or excitement, no real connection between one moment and the next, though maybe there was at least a certain amount of vigor and efficiency. I asked a musician in the orchestra what he thought of the conductor. He said, “Look, there are some pieces we just shouldn’t play unless the conductor can really make something of them.” This piece was one of them. When I asked what the others were, he answered in a single breath: “All the Brahms symphonies, all the Tchaikovsky symphonies, the Beethoven symphonies, the New World Symphony, the Symphonie Fantastique.”
Which made me wonder: What if orchestras simply wouldn’t play these works, if the performance wasn’t going to be their best? What if they — and their music directors and artistic administrators — just refused to let it happen? Impossible, everyone will say. Of course orchestral artistic administrators will try to avoid pieces they really don’t want someone to conduct, but they’d be the first to say that compromises must be made. To please the audience, there’s normally a standard work on every program. And since you can’t always get the guest conductors you want…and can’t always tell them what to do…and since (with more than 20 programs a year to juggle, in the case of big orchestra) you may not have much room to maneuver, for all these reasons (and probably more) you’re often enough stuck with something you don’t fully want.
I have to accept these practicalities. But along with them, shouldn’t we accept their consequences? Orchestras play too many concerts that they know aren’t their best. And they know this, much of the time, in advance. They go into many concerts cynically, or at least somewhat cynically, knowing in advance that they won’t be able to play their best.
Is this a good thing? What would happen if orchestras didn’t accept the current limitations, and tried to make every concert special?