A difficult discussion

How well do orchestras play? That’s a question I raised, implicitly, by asking whether a new, young orchestra might surprise us with some edge-of-the-seat commitment. Playing better, in some crucial ways, than the big established orchestras. 
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.  
But let’s leave that aside for now. Instead, I’d like to note what I think are some oddities. 

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 instance: 

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. 
You won’t find the musicians meeting after a concert, with their conductor, to discuss what went well, and what could be improved. At one of the Mellon meetings, a clarinetist with the St. Louis Symphony played a big Stravinsky solo, surrounded by colleagues from other orchestras, who critiqued her playing. This was offered (and accepted by all involved) as a dramatic innovation, something that would never happen normally. And in fact it happened at the gathering only because an expert and compassionate facilitator was on hand to lead the discussion, to make everyone involved feel safe. 

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. 
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  1. Yvonne says

    «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.»

    Perhaps this has been true in that consultant’s experience, but I wouldn’t say it was true everywhere. In my experience (in two orchestras in Australia and one in the States) it’s rare for people on an orchestra staff not to discuss a concert and venture opinions afterwards, later comparing their own assessments with those of the critics, making comparisons with other performances, etc. The opinions vary in depth, detail and confidence and the discussions are for the most part informal, but they certainly happen.

  2. Henry Peyrebrune says

    Greg – we talk about performance all the time – it’s called rehearsal. While it’s primarily led by the conductor, there are always side discussions within sections and sections taking time during rehearsal breaks or after rehearsal to go over passages.

    And – individual players can focus on their own performance during their own practice, which is informed by years of intense scrutiny.

    And and – we always talk about the way the orchestra is playing during breaks and between rehearsal and concerts.

    I think it’s a big mistake to leave performance quality and artistic decisions as the sole province of the music director, but my experience is that musicians talk more about quality and the orchestra’s shortcomings than any other topic, and we all make artistic decisions every time we put the bow on the string or make the air in our instruments vibrate.

  3. says


    I’ve occasionally commented on the need for musicians to be more passionate, daring in their performances.

    I don’t attend as many orchestral concerts as I like, but often times I am struck by the technical excellence, yet lack of commitment to the music by professional orchestras. IMHO the reason much of pop music gets such an ardent following is the passion in their performances. If orchestras would consistently provide that same passion, I think we’d find more people attending their concerts.

    Young orchestras who play without the technical mastery of their professional counterparts, often (again, IMHO) provide a spark missing in more polished performances. Music is emotional, and therefore needs to be passionate.

    Here is my own post on this topic:


  4. CNF says

    I think orchestras need to first define “artistic excellence” and “playing better.” Could “playing better” mean compromising musicality for technical accuracy? What does the definition of artistic excellence imply for programming choices?

  5. ARBW says

    An interesting post. I worked for a regional orchestra for several years, and this topic actually came up a lot for us in the office. It was something about which we were very concerned, as there were certainly elements of the orchestra dragging the ensemble down. I’ve always wondered how it played out in large orchestras who have their choice of musicians.

  6. says

    Regarding contemporary music I wonder if it is because it is so difficult to play and hence prevents expression. It is nigh impossible to play a phrase expressively if you are palying 5 in the time of 7 as two thirds of a triplet, with rests inbetween.

    Maybe the expressiveness we are missing is the expressivenes of a Baroque, Classical, Romantic or Impressionist melody. Is a contemporary composition even intended to be played expressively? If the composer needs to put an articulation and dynamic marking over every single note, then to me it suggests a distrust of the performers.

    Regarding rock and soul music it is rhythmic and the obsessive beat builds up a momentum. If music does not have this pulse then the cumulative rhythmic effect is not going to be possible.

  7. ken nielsen says

    CNF – you can usefully discuss something without defining it. A discussion of “how did we do” and “can we do it better” happens in many fields, artistic and others.

    I am glad to hear Yonne’s observation. A friend who was once a player in one of the orchestras she mentioned complained that the main subject of discussion at players’ meetings was parking.

    A worthwhile subject to raise, Greg. I’d like to hear from more orchestra members, anonymously if necessary.

  8. Steven Honigberg says

    In a professional orchestra, you never want to be in a position to point fingers – this person sounded awful – that sort of thing. If a ritardando is not together it could be the fault of the conductor, the way the orchestra is seated on stage, perhaps even a member who has a bone to pick with the conductor. What is most important is feeling. Can the conductor communicate to 100 accomplished musicians the essence of the music. It is not as easy as it sounds. I have been in very successful situations and ones that were not. In my 27 seasons as a member of the NSO, I probably can count on one hand a performance that went badly – perhaps a player was suffering from an illness or had aged. Inspiration – a wonderful word that is underrated. It needs to come from within. At the start of any concert, a musician needs to be ready to perform and not just be warming his or her seat on stage. This is something that can be fostered by a good, genuine conductor who loves what he or she is doing.

  9. Rob Simonds says

    I emphatically agree with Henry that rehearsals are the most obvious and important mechanism orchestras have to collectively work on musical issues. In my experience there are others that directly or partially address artistic issues.

    Contract negotiations, artistic advisory committees, music director/staff conductor searches, ICSOM conductor evaluations, auditions, tenure review, probation, peer review.

    I’ve had the honor of playing with some veteran players who have “edge of the seat passion” and play with “heart-melting” beauty but have had their careers heartbreakingly ruined or tarnished by the pursuit of “better.” It is a term too causally tossed around in this business given that it clearly means different things to different people.

  10. Scooter says

    RE: the inside the bubble comments left here:

    Informal conversations don’t satisfy the self reflexive requirement of an official “post-mortem” – such as is traditional in theater. Complaining to your stand partner about the conductor after a concert or discussing any matter privately in rehearsal breaks can only go so far toward actual improvement.

    Also, rehearsal is a completely different matter – again the theater world (who also have a more useful and rigorous rehearsal process to begin with) recognizes that the rehearsal and performance are two vastly different worlds and should be addressed separately in order to really push toward excellence.

    A comment here by a veteran of a symphony orchestra who is so sure that only a handful of performances went badly illustrates the problem. Great artists always feel at least a bit unsatisfied and feel a need to continually improve, technicians count “mistakes.”

    And of course you aren’t going to be able to be expressive “playing 5 in the time of 7 as two thirds of a triplet, with rests in between” with one rehearsal and little to no individual attention and practice.

  11. Joan says

    In my current orchestra it is considered bad manners to talk about the performance afterwards unless you are positive and uplifting with your comments. Another point with orchestral music is that the single work which hits the audience is played not by a single expressive performer who can establish a personal rapport with the audience over the course of an evening, but by often more than 60 players. The one person who’s personal feelings can create a single complete emotional journey for the players that can then be given to the audience is the conductor. If the conductor can’t feel the music personally in addition to his technical capabilities of course, the players are actually hitting a brick wall if they try to offer feeling in addition to expertise. Musicians can’t give personal feeling with their playing to a conductor who can’t hear it or receive it. And I’ve never met an orchestra that could by-pass their conductor as they performed.

  12. says

    One big problem here is that musicians do not agree about what’s beautiful. Judgments about the quality of a performance vary widely. Driving home after performances in our carpool, it frequently happened that one musician said, “I thought we sounded especially good tonight,” and another would say, “Really? I thought it was kind of lackluster.”

    A related topic: although orchestras spend tremendous effort practicing and rehearsing to make good performances for the audience, there’s not usually any regular practice of finding out whether the work paid off and whether the audience “got” what the orchestra was trying to send. Isn’t that strange, to devote so much effort and then not check to see if it worked?

  13. Jeff says

    Orchestra musicians are profoundly aware of how well they are playing, individually and as a group. They are constantly under critique and review, from themselves, their section principal, the music director, the local critics, and their own public.

    As for discussions to evaluate how well orchestras, sections, and individual musicians play, they do indeed take place all of the time. If there is a problem in a concert, principals often discuss it with their sections, other principals or the music director before the next performance in order to find a solution.

    Formalized discussions pose challenges. Who qualifies to hold forth their opinions on the playing of their colleagues? Within an orchestra, EVERYONE has an opinion on everyone else. Sharing them freely would result in a lot of bent feelings. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and in the case of orchestras, the broth is our ability to unify and play together despite having 80-100 strong opinions on stage as to what is best. For the necessity of unifying our product, we have to bury our own opinions and personal musical desires to rightly follow the dictates of the conductor. Being professional means giving that person’s interpretation the fullest measure of adherence whether we like it or not. I’ve never known my orchestra to do otherwise. So much of the product is controlled by the conductor, it may be more productive to compare those behind the baton.

    Another challenge is that most of the evaluation process for musical performance is subjective. Very few conductors march in artistic lock step, thank goodness. It is the variety of interpretations; the ability to hear the same music beautifully expressed in different ways that makes music so interesting and appealing.

    Comparing the evaluation of orchestras to sports teams seems a little pointless. The measure of a sports team comes primarily from statistics – how many yards gained, how many strikeouts, how high a batting percentage? I imagine technical capabilities exist that would allow each musician to be individually monitored, with computers to sample and compare frequencies produced to the score. Then audiences could enjoy a whole new way of appreciating their musicians. “Yep, old Roger there in the violas, he’s got a 97% in-tune rating, and Joe in the horns, he’s got the lowest CTNP (clams to notes played)ratio in all of the top ten orchestras.”

    But I don’t think that is why people come to hear music. I think they come to be uplifted, and those who would come to listen so they can dither over whether “X” orchestra has a better concertmaster than “Y” orchestra are missing the point.

    So, Jeff — if people come to be uplifted, what is it in a performance that makes them feel that way? Will any old performance, if it’s reasonably competent, do the job? Or are some performances more uplifting than others? Are some orchestras more reliably uplifting than others? Are there technical problems orchestras might have that get in the way of being uplifting? Seems to me you’ve just pushed the question back a step.

    And as for sports, now, really! Stats measure some aspects of play, but people who really know sports know that there are endless tangible and intangible — but hard to measure — things that lie behind them. Motivation, intelligence, focus. And knowledge. These things are what really knowledgable fans talk about, and of course it’s what professionals concentrate on. Like, for instance, a shortstop’s range, or how quickly an outfielder understands exactly where a fly ball is coming, or how well a batter can psych out a pitcher, and strategize what pitch is coming next. Or how well each player knows their precise role in every situation, and how that role changes depending (for instance) on how many outs there are, how many people on base, and what the count is. (I’m giving only baseball examples, because that’s the sport I know best. But any sport has them.) If you listen to really good radio or TV commentary (which is rare, I’ll admit), you’ll hear these things talked about constantly.

  14. James says

    I disagree with the standard logic that players must bury their “own opinions and personal musical desires to rightly follow the dictates of the conductor”. One can do both. Most music we play has a long established interpretive history behind it. We, as experienced players, know well what the expressive goals are of the majority of the music we perform (and much of the music we don’t already know pretty clearly suggests musical character and emotion directions that can guide us expressively). To suggest that if the conductor isn’t able to convey much musically in this piece or that, that we, the professional, well trained and musically intelligent instrumentalists we call ourselves, are incapable of communicating what we already know about the piece’s, say, emotional weight (essentially saying to ourselves, “well the conductor’s not feeling it, I guess I can’t either”) just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Over many years of orchestral playing one witnesses many different approaches to the standard rep. by many different conductors. But none deviate so far from the well-established characterization of the music that one should feel the need to shift expressive gears so dramatically, or disengage from the playing altogether because one is confused about what to do expressively. If one stays engaged one learns a lot about how to make this or that phrase expressive. And one builds the best of those interpretive ideas into one’s own playing; learning and building a palette, a repertoire of expressive ideas to bring, on one’s own, to those well-worn pieces. Especially when the conductor at hand is not showing much. That’s where our unique musical talents are at their most necessary. Indeed, it is at those times when players should be reaching into their trove of expressive knowledge and instincts (instincts which can and should come to the fore in the performance of unfamiliar music, too; much of that having fairly clear musical/expressive connotations that an engaged player can react to).

    Teaching the attitude of sublimation of musical instincts is to curse one’s students with an unnecessarily tedious orchestral life. Encourage the use of their innate musicality within the context of the large ensemble. It is not one or the other by any means. Finding a way to remain engaged at all times is the key to a long, happy career as an orchestral musician.

    As far as counting on one hand goes, the number of truly inspired, revelatory performances in a professional lifetime also falls there. If one approaches orchestral playing with an expressive blank slate waiting for the conductor to etch his/her inspired vision of the piece on it, or inspire one to one’s fullest involvement, then one is destined to play the vast majority of one’s career in a minimal state of engagement. There just aren’t enough great conductors to encourage us to our best, or inspired performances out there to lift us, regularly, to deploy all we have individually. We must do it ourselves.

  15. says


    my response was too long to post here so it’s on my blog…. (yes, a second one)

    But another quick comment to some of what’s been said:

    Jeff – it’s been my experience that professional musicians talk about improvement after a concert, then take those comment home to work on in a personal nature, but seldom work on these comments as an ensemble.

    As for audiences, I think it has less to do with wanting uplifted and more to do with wanting a good show. That show may just be great music – but in a modern world of video and mp3 players, sound bites and paparazzi I believe a modern audience wants a show.

    This is discussed in more detail on my own blog: http://interchangingidioms.blogspot.com/2011/06/my-thoughts-on-greg-sandows-difficult.html

  16. Guest says

    After a performance last night I was drawn again to this conversation. I believe another reason we don’t discuss performance quality within the institution is because of conductor quality or lack thereof. They are inextricably linked. My position here is not to make the conductor a scapegoat but to put some things out in the open for others to consider.

    Conductors in my opinion need to communicate physically (with their beat and expression gestures), communicate verbally (have exchanges with musicians in rehearsal), and have something beyond that to share with the orchestra-a vision, an emotional reality, something beyond the physical to inspire us and communicate that to the audience. I am aware many might disagree with me and I don’t want to imply the conductor is 100% responsible for the inspiration. But week after week of incompetent, indifferent, or demeaning conductors can WEAR OUT an orchestra. I am grateful if we have someone with one of the three qualities I listed and that is rare! We cannot make gold out of lead 52 weeks a year.

    I am not implying that conducting is an easy job-it requires great technique and preparation along with a transparency that is rare in human beings and very rare in the human beings that seem to occupy leadership positions.

    Consider that most of the players in an orchestra have been playing since early childhood, early adolescence at the latest. How many conductors are practicing that early? How many move with the kind of comfort and ease of a good orchestral violinist for example?

    How many people can accept the utter lack of control that comes with conducting-trusting the musicians to make sound precisely along with you? Very often it doesn’t that long before conductors I’ve seen get defensive or reflexive, absent, when they don’t get what they want-consciously asked for, communicated clearly or not. Few seem to be in touch with the orchestra in front of them rather than the orchestra in their head.

    Now the great conductors of old got around this lack of control, this vulnerability, by having absolute (and ofter instant) hiring and firing power, terrorizing the musicians, holding extra rehearsals at will, etc. No disrespect, but how would Szell, Stokowsky, or Toscanini fare with the average four rehearsals for a subscription concert in this country?

    I don’t know enough about conductor training and education to know how this could be repaired. Therapy?

    So what does this have to do with performance quality? Well, if the conductor has no beat we have little basis to discuss the orchestra’s ensemble abilities. If the conductor cannot communicate well we have little basis to discuss the responsiveness of the orchestra to his ideas. If the conductor has no vision of the music how can we discuss how the orchestra effectively (or not) performs this in concert?

    Most of the time the orchestra is making up for the conductor’s weaknesses in those three areas-ie not looking up and relying on another instead (or playing cautiously), performing it the way ‘the band’ does it when the conductor has no vision, etc etc. And when the conductor is abusive or condescending what kind of performance do you really expect?

    I say in all seriousness that the great or at least consistent performances around this country from orchestras are despite conductors, not because of them. If we would like to see more magical, passionate, unique performances from the orchestras we require more from our leadership. I believe boards and managements avoid the discussion for precisely this reason.