How well orchestras play: applying some criteria

[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 public outside 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!)  

     Going further

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.

My point isn’t to praise myself, but to ask why we don’t hear or read things like this more often. 
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.

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  1. D Shapiro says

    I currently live in Toronto, and the Toronto Symphony, which was in the doldrums from about the time that Seiji Ozawa left, in the late 70s, has blossomed again under Maestro Oundjian, whose star is deservedly rising abroad as well now. Your criteria are fine, and yet there are intangibles, too. The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell (I lived there briefly during his tenure) was consistently terrific, though he was apparently not well liked, but rather feared.

    How much of an orchestra’s quality is the players? How much the conductor? How much some other factors? All I know is that yes, when you sit and listen closely you can tell the difference, and there’s surprisingly little dissension among listeners.

  2. Joan Sutherland says

    I hesitate to say this. We the audience don’t go to a concert to sit as judges marking perfection or the lack of it in each performance, and we the players, though we struggle for perfect technique as the notes go by, also open ourselves to feeling and try to allow the technique to carry it to the audience. The overall purpose of the concert is to convey humanity in all its variety through the medium of sound. It isn’t about the perfection of the notes. For me the most reward from a review comes when the writer starts with the composer and states what he feels the conductor’s interpretation is trying to accomplish and then comments on whether this was well done or not, and why.

  3. says

    Differences between sports teams and orchestras:

    – sports teams are direct competitors, most orchestras are not

    – sports teams main focus is on (short-term) WINNING, orchestras’ focus is on quality performance.

    So how do you think sports teams manage to win? Only by delivering quality performances, as individuals and as a team. This isn’t at all a short-term proposition. Winning teams can take years to build. Years of careful work, detailed training, lots of practice, and creative, diligent coaching. The similarity here with orchestras ought to be obvious — although few people in the audience may be aware of the long-term work that goes into orchestra-building.

  4. says

    AS a fellow reviewer and classical music enthusiast, I often wonder how to put what I think about a performance on to paper (or in a blog). Several times I’ve written opinions (not reviews) about what I think a performance should be, and technically perfect isn’t high on my list.

    While I do want the right notes played with the right dynamics and articulation, the passion behind the performance is, to me, much more important. One of the problems I think orchestras fall into today is the need to be “technically” accurate and fail to capture the passion. The most thrilling performances are those when the conductor encourages the ensemble to create a unified emotional impact.

    I disagree with Joan – people do go to concerts to be critics. Maybe not officially, but if they don’t like what they hear or they think the price is too expensive for what they heard, they won’t be back. So, whether they mean to or not, they are judging; it’s human nature.

    However, all that said – part of a reviewers job is to assess the orchestra. BUT, I’m not sure I agree they should be assessing any performance too harshly. Orchestras don’t want reviews that crucify them. They won’t sell more tickets and orchestras are having a hard enough time as it is without critics making it more difficult.

    But… we can’t be too soft either. If the audience clearly didn’t enjoy the concert, then a good review isn’t honest either – and a critics credibility goes down the drain.

    There has to be a happy medium, offering positive words about what went right, while pointing out the ways they can improve –or just say nothing at all, and I’ve certainly done that!

    We also need to consider the digital world. Most classical music today is heard from a recording not a concert hall. I know of very few “live” recordings by orchestras, because they want to fix and tweak all those little things that make the performance less than perfect. So, if the 1st flute was too loud, we bring it down in the mix, or if the horns were say “look at me” we have them play it again with a little less bravado and slip that into the recording. People don’t go to a concert hall expecting the same perfection they get from a CD (and they won’t get it) – but they should be something exciting.

    Yes, maybe replacing professional players with younger, more enthusiastic players might give a more exciting performance, albeit less technically perfect.

    In the end, the question for me really is –when we judge how well an orchestra plays, where do we publicize this judgment? (if we publicize it at all)

    I think that people are naturally critics. The normal response, after a performance of any kind (movies, theater, sports, rock shows, monster trucks) is to discuss it. Maybe dish it, maybe tear it apart, maybe rave to the skies. But always to talk in great detail.

    But somehow orchestra concerts are different. They exist to uplift us. Which means that we leave our brains at the door? We can’t talk intelligently — and, if necessary, critically — about what went on?

  5. says

    “So how do you think sports teams manage to win?”

    By making “winning” the objective.

    But winning doesn’t lead to quality performance (anyone who has seen a few boring soccer matches will agree with me); quantity rules.

    Classical music isn’t soccer, nor should it be. In fact, I believe TRUE art is anti-competitive in nature, because its beauty lies in the new, innovative, and imaginary approach to traditional or new works of arts; such an approach is by nature qualitative.

    By extension, true arts organization are, in my view, the complete OPPOSITE of sports team. Yes, both take years to build, but artists work toward bringing a transformational experience (qualitative), while sportsmen care very little about providing an outstanding performance; as long as they keep ahead of the competition, all is fine.

    Eric, forgive me, but you don’t understand sports at all. Read the sports pages. Watch games on TV. You’ll see that much of the discussion is about character — moral and ethical things, which are considered crucial. As well as matters of teamwork, which are, in the end, matters of character. A player who puts him or herself before the team is despised. Such players exist. Nobody likes them very much. And they don’t help a team win.