[Forgot the links when I first posted this. Sorry!]
In previous posts:
How well, I asked, do our orchestras play? In my first post about that, I said that I thought this subject is — to say the least — curiously muted inside the orchestra world, and not adequately discussed
in publicoutside it.
I got some pushback on that (no surprise), which I’ll address next week (though some of what I say in this post might clarify what I meant).
And then, in a post Wednesday, I offered four criteria for judging how well an orchestra plays:
- technical excellence (balance, intonation, ensemble)
- the strength of each section, and of each principal
- ow well the orchestra plays various musical styles
- whether the orchestra plays with edge of the seat excitement, with melting passion, with visible and audible commitment
And now I might add another point, something I raised in passing, in my last post. How well does the orchestra play under a conductor who isn’t so good, or whom the players don’t like? Does the playing sag? Or do the musicians play their best (as individuals and as a group), no matter who the conductor is?
A pointed question
So now it’s time to ask: How often do we see an orchestra thoroughly assessed, either in public or private, with all these criteria weighed? Do we see critics do it? Does the orchestra’s board do it, perhaps presenting each year its own thorough summary of where the orchestra stands artistically? Do the players do it, perhaps themselves meeting each year, to discuss whether they could do better?
The answers to all these questions, as I think we’d all agree, is almost always no. These assessments aren’t made. Maybe they come up informally, in conversation among musicians, among members of the orchestra’s artistic staff, or even among members of the audience. Or in private comments from the music director. But we certainly don’t run into these complete assessments often. As opposed, as I’ve noted before, to what we see in sports. In baseball, for instance, every serious Mets fan, every player on the team, everyone in the team’s front office, and every sportswriter in New York can tell you the team’s strengths and weakness.
Critics do judge an orchestra’s performances, but for the most part they say whether they liked what happened in a particular piece, maybe noting some notably good or poor playing from a section or individual. But they’ll rarely give a complete assessment of how the orchestra plays, not just at a single concert, but in all of its performances. (If anyone’s seen a review that does this, please let me know!)
Now I’d like to zero in on one of my criteria, the strength of an orchestra’s sections, brass, winds, strings, and percussion. Someone, commenting on Twitter, said these things do get talked about. We all know, for instance, that the Philadelphia Orchestra has terrific strings, and that the Chicago Symphony has stellar brass.
But do we really know that? [ADDED LATER:] Or, rather, does knowing that mean that these orchestras have the best strings and brass?
Many orchestras have good string sections. I’ve heard terrific string playing at (just for instance) the NY Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony, and (of course) the Berlin Philharmonic. As, I’m sure, have many music critics. But you don’t think to write, “Ah, those legendary Berlin strings!” It’s the Philadelphia strings who get the special praise, but maybe that’s just conventional wisdom. Maybe their strings aren’t any better than the strings at some other top orchestras.
And even if they are, do we know who’s second-best? Who’s third? Which major orchestras have strings — or individual string sections — that need improvement? These things we don’t hear about.
And who has the best oboes? Oboists would know (or at least could offer an opinion). Maybe orchestra artistic administrators would know. Or experienced, well-traveled, well-connected orchestral musicians who play other instruments.
But the public doesn’t know. Critics most likely don’t know, or anyway don’t say. And we’re not likely to see the board of some top orchestra declare, even in private, that their oboes need improvement, the way the Mets’ front office (and every Mets fan) knew at the start of this season that the team needed starting pitching and a second baseman. (And, as the unfolding year has shown, a lot else, too, but let’s not go there.)
As one example of what might be said, I’ll dare to offer a review I wrote in 1998 for the Wall Street Journal, after I’d heard the New York Philharmonic several times in the same week. (They were playing all the Beethoven symphonies in a special festival). Here’s part of what I said:
The Philharmonic’s advertising last year stressed the musicians’ virtuosity, and that’s accurate. But some of the principal players — the woman with short, dark hair, for instance, who played first flute for seven of the nine symphonies — stood out too much, as if their virtuosity meant too much to them. The entire horn section, extraordinary inst instrumentalists sometimes engaged in blatant self-promotion, at their worst conveying just one message: “Yo! Listen to us!”
The first violins are weak; they sounded crude and prosaic in the slow movement of the ninth, in great contrast to the violas, whose purity was a high musical achievement. Incredibly, the back stands of the first violins sometimes dragged behind the rest (especially in the sweeping upward scale at bars 210 to 212 in the slow movement of the [Seventh Symphony].) The basses are the strongest section — noble, precise and always true to the music’s inner meaning.
Years later, I found out that Kurt Masur — the music director back then — had been working hard, and sometimes brutally (if what I heard was true), to purge the Philharmonic’s first violins. Which surely is why I now can say I’ve wholly liked the Philharmonic’s strings.
Note, though, that — from everything I’ve heard — this was Masur’s individual campaign. And not something openly discussed, within the institution, as something that should or shouldn’t be done.
Next post: why these judgments matter.