But that’s a long discussion, which — at bottom — invokes a larger question. How good, overall, are classical music performances these days? In my recent talk to graduating students at New England Conservatory, you’ll find me urging them to play with more heart-melting passion, more edge of the seat excitement, more individuality, and more vivid distinctions between one piece and another, and also between one moment and another in any given piece. I’d extend that challenge to orchestras as well.
First, performance quality isn’t an active subject of discussion inside the orchestra world. You’d think it would be, since orchestras routinely say that one of their top goals is artistic excellence, and often put that in their mission statements. And critics of course review orchestras, and say whether they like their performances.
And it’s also true that many orchestras really do play well, at least if we’re looking at instrumental technique, balance, ensemble, and intonation. As people often say, orchestral musicians now play better than at any time in history, and I’m sure that’s true.
Beyond that, I’ve also heard orchestral musicians speak warmly about orchestral playing. One I know, just before he retired, told me that in all the years he’d played with his orchestra, he never got tired of hearing his colleagues play certain solo passages, finding something new in them each time.
But still, inside the orchestra world, there’s a strange silence about performance quality. I’m not saying it’s never talked about. But it isn’t all that openly discussed.
For some years I worked with the Orchestra Forum, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s program which gave a group of orchestras funds for many years, the idea being that they’d use those funds to innovate. Twice a year the program held retreats for musicians, staff, and board members from more than a dozen participating orchestras.
I attended those retreats, at which all kinds of management problems were thoroughly discussed. But — with one exception I’ll get to in a moment — the quality of playing was never even mentioned. It was as if the orchestras simply assumed that they played quite wonderfully. Or else that the group allowed that assumption to be made, to avoid any trouble that might arise if anyone said that someone played badly.
The exception to this was something I did. At one of the meetings, one of the orchestras made a presentation about what looked, at the time, like a successful management reform. When it came time for questions, I raised my hand, and — out of curiosity, I’ll confess, to see whether I’d get any answer — I asked the board chair of this orchestra whether, after the reforms, the orchestra wasn’t just managed better, but also played better.
I didn’t get an answer. In fact, the board chair retreated from the question at something near the speed of light. He just about pointed at me with the gesture that wards off the evil eye. He couldn’t speak about musical quality, he said. Not his responsibility. If I wanted an answer, I’d have to ask the music director.
But the board hires the music director! I can understand a board chair not wanting to comment publicly if he had a negative opinion, but to say he couldn’t make any comment at all made me think that — for him — that subject was taboo.
Once I spent some time between flights with a consultant who worked with both orchestras and theater companies. After a drink or two, he told me something that he noticed in his work. When he was visiting a theater company that had just premiered a new production, he’d see the company’s entire staff talking about the play, saying what they liked and didn’t like about the acting, the sets, the lighting, the play itself, whatever. But when he worked with orchestras, nobody said anything the day after a concert. No one on the staff would venture an opinion — and certainly not a detailed or contentious one — about the playing or conducting.
And orchestras don’t openly critique themselves, the way sports teams often do.
Yes, I know it’s easier for sports teams to talk about failure. After a game, we always know who won or lost. So if a team loses 10 games in a row, the whole town knows it, and fans are up in arms. The team then will likely have a meeting, to get yelled at by their coach or manager, to motivate themselves, to figure out what they’ve been doing wrong. But still it’s strange that orchestras don’t do this. Because isn’t there more at stake? Isn’t great art more important than baseball? Then why not talk about how well you’re playing all the masterpieces that give classical music its glory? If something’s wrong, shouldn’t you try to fix it?
I’ll stop here, and resume the discussion in my next post.