Measuring how well orchestras play

The story so far: In an interview with The Australian, about the Philadelphia bankruptcy, I said that — just possibly — a new orchestra with eager young musicians might surprise everyone by playing with more fire than an established group. This caused some commotion (as I noted in a post), and I thought I might talk more broadly about what I think is a difficult topic: how well orchestras play. So I started with a post about how this topic, rather strangely, I thought, isn’t often discussed.  
So now to continue. Maybe after this post, it’ll be clearer why I think that orchestra playing isn’t a topic we talk about. What I want to ask today is: How do we measure how well an orchestra plays?

I can think of four criteria:

  • Technical points: ensemble, balance, intonation. How well an orchestra plays together rhythmically, how well in tune it is, and how well each instrument takes its proper place in — as pieces are played — the changing orchestral texture. 
  • The strength of each section in an orchestra, and the strength of individual players. How good are the trombones? How good are the oboes? How good is the principal horn? How good is the timpanist? How do these people (and all their colleagues) compare to their counterparts in other orchestras? 
  • How well does an orchestra play various musical styles? How well does it handle romantic music, new music, baroque music, music from the classical period? Which then could be asked about each section of an orchestra, and even about individuals. Maybe the principal flute is strongest in romantic music. Maybe the brass is too violent in Mozart and Haydn symphonies. Maybe the timpanist does her strongest work in Haydn and Mozart, really bringing the rhythm alive. 
  • And, finally, how expressive is an orchestra? Does it play with edge of the seat excitement, with melting passion, with rapt commitment? With pure, precise objectivity in a piece by Stravinsky or Steve Reich? Can it play truly loudly, and truly softly? Or, as all too often happens (to my ear at least), are the pianos really mezzo-pianos, and the fortes nothing much more than mezzo-fortes? 
Some of these things — dynamic range, for instance — are (of course) to some large extent the conductor’s work. To take two conductors I heard a lot, at one time, Kurt Masur, despite other virtues, couldn’t get the New York Philharmonic to play really loudly or really softly. While Mariss Jansons, when he was in Pittsburgh, seemed to have more gradations above forte and below piano than most conductors have in their entire dynamic range. But some things about an orchestra don’t change from conductor to conductor, or don’t change much, or change most easily in some directions, rather than others. 

And some orchestras — Cleveland has been a stellar example, over the years — play their best (or close to it) no matter who the conductor is, while others sag when the conductor isn’t good. I’ve heard the Met Opera orchestra give some wan performances with subpar conductors. They just don’t sound as if they’re taking very much care. 

So obviously the four things in my bullet points vary from orchestra to orchestra. One orchestra I’ve heard a lot in recent years — especially under their previous conductor — hasn’t played so well in tune, or with good ensemble. I remember the start of a Paganini concerto, where it wasn’t clear that a dotted rhythm really was two notes, not one, and it also wasn’t clear whether the chord was major or minor. 

A regional orchestra I used to hear a lot had terrific strings, but its brass section (especially the trumpets) wasn’t very good. A conductor who worked a lot with the group confirmed all this to me, and told me — off the record, of course, though in a formal journalistic interview — that he was limiting his relationship with the orchestra because he thought it wouldn’t improve.

And I heard, very reliably, about a major conductor who turned down an invitation to conduct Haydn and Mozart with a leading orchestra, because he didn’t think the group played classical-period music very well. I’m not mentioning the names of these orchestras, so as not to sidetrack what really matters to me in this post, which isn’t whether any given orchestra plays well or badly, but rather how these things are (or aren’t) talked about. 

So now I’ll ask: How often are my four criteria discussed? I’ll stop here, because this is getting long, and continue in another post. 

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  1. Carol Fineberg says

    Thank you. I am taking your essay to a meeting today! As a leader of artists and teachers trying to make an impact on how students learn and teachers teach in and through the arts, I find this a very very useful document by an expert in the field. It is straight and not so technical that a lay listener could not use it as a guide.

    Dr. Carol Fineberg,

    National Arts and Education Consultant

  2. says

    Very good, to start this discussion, with these indeed basic criteria.

    May I add two other questions to deal with: what about the conventional wisdom in professional circles that an orchestra is as good as its conductor, so that we have to take into account this interaction as well.

    Secondly: shouldn’t we add as a relevant principle an orchestra’s ability to develop itself as an artistic body, both in terms of repertoire and as a social phenomenon. With the latter I think of the interaction with the community that upholds its mere existence. We tend to think that an orchestra is a well defined thing, while the contrary is the case. Orchestras as instrumental musical bodies have changed in many ways over the many years behind us.

    Casper Vogel, The Netherlands

  3. Eusebius says

    But I can only think of Furtwängler who said: I raise the baton and then something happens!