Reasons for the silence

And now we get to the hard stuff. The questions that truly are difficult.
Here’s the first of them. Why — given what I’ve said in my previous posts — aren’t orchestras subject (in public, or even very much in private) to detailed comparisons, revealing how well they play? 

I think there are four reasons. 

First: it would be hard to do anything with the information these comparisons would supply. 
Suppose you’re on the board of an orchestra, and now — because, magically, comparisons came your way — you can’t doubt that your orchestra has sub-par bassoons. What do you do about that? Fire the bassoons? Not exactly easy, under the musicians’ contract. Have someone work with the bassoons, so they’ll play better? That, actually, might well be an effective and compassionate solution, but it, too, isn’t likely to happen. Orchestras don’t work that way. And (from what I’ve heard) it would be a contract violation for the board to say anything to the musicians about how well they play. (Craziness! Who’s in charge here?)
Second: the ideology of classical music says that everything’s wonderful.
This is big. But can anyone doubt that classical music has an ideology, or at least a set of prevailing beliefs, floating around both in private and public? And isn’t one of those beliefs that classical music is just plain wonderful? And wouldn’t it hurt that belief to talk explicitly about how some performances aren’t so wonderful? 

(And yes, of course I know — having, for God’s sake, been a critic–that critics will find fault with performances. But they’re notably circumspect, on the whole, compared with movie critics, let’s say, or sportswriters.)

Third: it’s in orchestra managements’ interest not to have quality talked about. 
They need support, from donors and their community. They need to sell tickets. So it’s best that everyone thinks that everything’s wonderful. That artistic excellence isn’t just a phrase in the orchestra’s mission statement, but an everyday truth. So if your trumpets aren’t so good (or if your music director has set out to purge the first violins, as I’m told Kurt Masur did at the NY Philharmonic) you probably don’t want that talked about. 
Fourth; it’s in the musicians’ interest not to have their quality talked about. 
Relations, in so many orchestras, between musicians and management are (to say the least) prickly. It’s bad enough, musicians might (and do) say, that management wants to cut their pay, and send them out into the community (using some of the time that, up to now, they’ve spent playing mainstage concerts). So, on top of that, is management now going to say they don’t play well enough? 

I’m not saying there’s a direct line between all of this and the lack of discussion. It’s not as if orchestra managements or musicians or classical music ideologists (whoever they’d be) conspire to suppress talk about quality. 

But somehow the entire classical music enterprise — as we know it now — has evolved in ways that make these discussions unlikely. 

And one thing I’m sure about. If the public side of all this — what critics say, what members of the audience might say — were more advanced, if discussions of orchestra quality were clear, strong, and closely detailed, then the private side would do better, too. If — and please, understand that this is an imaginary example, something I’m making up — all of Cincinnati talked about how bad the trombones were in the Cincinnati Symphony, wouldn’t the orchestra have to do something about it? 

Pushback: someone’s sure to say that all this is niggling, irrelevant. Because orchestras play superbly well! I’m not going to deny that many in fact do play well. But are we supposed to believe that orchestras — alone among human institutions — are exempt from the bell curve, that some aren’t better than others, and that some might not just be pretty bad? 
Next (and, I think, the most difficult discussion of all): do orchestras have an internal culture that fosters the highest-quality art? 
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  1. Laurence Glavin says

    One summer I was staying with some friends in Western Massachusetts, 20 miles from Tanglewood. Almost by rote, everyone was geared up to go to that night’s Boston Symphony concert. Thet were surprised that I did something else on my own, first because they considered me the go-to guru on all things classical and operatic, and by the reason I gave: the program (Wienawski Violin Concerto #2 and Shostakovich 6th Symphony) were NOT compelling piece. They indeed had the feeling that just about ANY piece played by a world-class orchestra must be of Olympian stature. (In this case closer to Olympia Beer than Mt. Olympus). I recall in detail the makeup of the Tanglewood program, but forget whether I went to a chamber music concert at Music Mountain or a play at the Williamstown Theater Festival (initals WTF!) which is what I tended to do on a Saturday night in the Berkshires. I trust the people who did go to the concert probably enjoyed it nonetheless; it was probably better than most of the music they had been exposed to all year up to that point.

  2. says

    The other night I went to see the movie Super 8 with some friends. Afterword, we lingered in the theater lobby discussing not only the technical merits — shot selection, character development, etc, — but also just the way the film affected us emotionally. None of us formally studied film or anything, this conversation just came up naturally as we were leaving. This has never happened with me at an orchestra performance. I’ve gone to the orchestra with different family members and friends but the response is always pretty much along the lines of “that was nice.”

    Nicely put, Andy. I’ve had this same experience, with movies and with friends at orchestra concerts. Which also echoes my previous post, in which I talked about a consultant who works with theater companies and orchestras, and finds that the staff of theater companies have the post-movie-style discussion the day after a new show opens, while the orchestra staff members have very little to say after a concert.

    Think how lively classical music would be, if most of the audience jumped in and actively debated performances!

  3. says

    It most definitely is in a musician’s interest to have their quality of performance talked about. This is good article by the way.

    Musicians are no different from other artists; writers are scorned and praised, the same writer, for the same book sometime, and both of these can be loved and hated. You will see where I’m heading with this.

    Everyone needs support, if that support happens against the quality of product, it is better that that support never happened.

    Orchestral music, like a novel is a complex evolving entity. Both need to be told and played just right. If I read a story, and don’t know it, if I think that I can just improvise over parts and it will all work, then I am destroying the whole purpose of the art.

    Art is not a just a commodity, it is a product that has to compete, but it’s not a simple article of trade – its worth is in its intrinsic value.

    That nature is built into its makeup, not just by the composer or writer, but also from years of love, passion, and by interest and dedication for its worth, from you and me: the listeners and the reader.

    If an orchestra is not up to scratch, don’t boo of hiss at them, write them a letter, post a note on line that explains what you did not like about their performance.

    I don’t want to hear someone venting their dislike, as most people don’t. I want to hear why they did not like it. Give me your heartfelt and honest opinion, think about it, don’t just write something and not edit it. Composers don’t do this; neither should someone with a critical response.

    If there is a reason for silence, it is we are intimidated by classical music. But, if you study it, if you listen to it, you will understand it. From pre Bach to post Glass, it is notes on a page, like words, waiting to be understood.

  4. says

    That’s a really interesting series of articles. However, one thing I’d like to see you address more closely is this question – what exactly is the purpose of a symphony orchestra?

    The purpose of a baseball club is clear – it’s to win games and titles. It’s all very measurable, and the position by position comparisons are central to that aim.

    Orchestras play many important roles – they preserve musical and cultural traditions for us, they educate us, they provide a vehicle for modern day composers to strut their stuff. Not highly measurable. But they’re also there to entertain us, and this aspect is highly measurable: ticket sales. I realise it’s a short step from the pursuit of broad audience appeal to the introduction of skating rinks and light classics on ice (and other tricks as successfully promoted by Voldemort, but surely audience numbers and audience engagement needs to be factored in to your benchmarks.

    You started this thread with a comment in The Australian that young orchestras with less polish and more pizzazz might be more exciting to hear. To keep the baseball analogies going, this could be the musical version of Moneyball, the story of a low-budget team building a winning record by buying cheap/unfashionable players who actually contributed to winning games rather than expensive players who only appeared to be contributing to winning games.

    Good analogy. Or maybe the Rays, when they won the AL pennant. Or the current Mets, scrappily playing with minor-leaguers while some of their stars are injured. Though that shows the limitation, in sports, of competing with excited young players. They might not deliver consistently. That’s true with orchestras, too, where technical points are concerned. But a scrappy young orchestra can be really fun to listen to, even if they aren’t technically absolutely adept. In sports, technical failures lose games.

    So that’s a way of answering your question about what orchestras are for. In the simplest answer, they exist to perform music. And we want to like what we hear. We might like it even if we understand that the technical quality could be higher. As opposed to sports, where technical flubs make our team lose games, which we don’t like.

    Or, to focus more closely: in sports, there’s obviously a line between winning and losing. An absolute line. Whereas in musical performance there aren’t such absolutes. In baseball, players who strike out may be encouraged despite their failure, because they’ll say they had a “good at-bat” — they really fought the pitcher, right up to the last moment. But the good at-bats are pointless if they don’t, in the end, help the team win. An orchestra that delivers good at-bats, in which some problems can be noted, never has to be judged by whether it won or lost.

  5. John-Morgan Bush says


    You raise some very powerful questions here. Questions that I believe we need to be asking– but more importantly answering. This is what I am trying to do with my performance ensemble Tuxedo Revolt. I appreciate your willingness to swim against the current on this one.


    John-Morgan Bush

    Thanks, John-Morgan. I’ll Google your ensemble. Or feel free to email information about it.

  6. Hamstrung says

    PART 1

    If a man lies bleeding to death in the middle of the street, it’s probably not very helpful to walk up, kick him, and yell in his face, “You shouldn’t have crossed against the light!” and then walk smugly away leaving others to call 911.

    The title of your sermon today, “Reasons for the silence,” is well chosen, Greg, but the deafening silence I’m hearing is different than the one you’re hearing. Let’s recap.

    You got zinged really good by a cartoon in Adaptistration over a really thoughtless and bone-headed (many would say cruel) comment you made about professional musicians. Anyone with a little sense of humor would have laughed and blushed, said “Yeah, you got me,” and then got on with their lives — possibly having learned something about themselves. Instead you chose the route of self-justification and attack. You had to try to figure out a way to explain that your initial loony comment was misunderstood — what everyone else saw as an embarrassing cow pie you stepped in was really a gem of wisdom that you now needed to unpack so that everyone could see that you, once again, are right, and those who actually do music for a living are, once again, all wrong. So you proceded to write a series of posts (5 so far) devoted to what amounts to an extended assault on orchestra musicians, with an occasional swipe at unions, based on a problem that you’ve invented: orchestras don’t model themselves after baseball clubs. You really should run for political office.

    The result after the first of these diversionary posts was a mixed response in a dozen or so reader comments (but a lot of laughing, venting & sputtering over at Adaptistration). But in ensuing posts at Sandow there has been virtual reader silence. My guess is not that no one is reading this stuff, it’s that they’re either too angry or too embarrassed for you to engage with you on your bogus challenge. And of course the deafening silence could be broken at any moment by an avalanche of supportive comments from your fan base.

    (Part 2 to follow)

  7. Hamstrung says

    PART 2

    I tend to go back and forth about the question of whether we should demand that a critic have some hands-on experience as a professional musician before taking him or her seriously, but in this case, I have no ambivalence. Your words indicate you are in way over your head. You are attempting to delve deeply into the culture and organizational mechanics of working in a professional orchestra, but there is nothing to indicate you have anything but selective hearsay and anecdotes from those who have a stake in making you believe their version of the truth. If you have experienced any of this yourself – personally – your problem definitions and so-called solutions would carry a lot more weight than they do. So I am compelled to ask, and I have no idea what the answers will be, the following


    1. Have you ever performed as a regular member of a professional, semi-professional, or adult amateur orchestra? Chamber orchestra? Chamber ensemble? What was your instrument and for how long?

    2. Have you ever conducted a professional, semi-professional or adult amateur orchestra? How many seasons? Any reviews?

    3. Have you ever held a salaried administrative position in the management of an orchestra or any other arts organization? If other than ED or AD, what position? For how long? Have you ever written a vision, goals & objectives statement for a large orchestra? Written a 5-year plan? Programmed or worked with a conductor to program the next season? Hired soloists and made arrangements for their care and feeding? Have you ever been responsible for the budget for a large organization? Have you ever led a fundraising campaign? Have you ever had to hire or fire a professional musician?

    4. Do you now, or have you ever, served on the board of a professional, semi-professional, or adult amateur orchestra? Served on the board of ANY arts or other NFP organization? Been on the executive committee of a board? Been on the search committee to hire a conductor or AD or ED? Been involoved in an annual evaluation of an AD or ED?

    Sorry if these are “difficult questions” which you have a tendency to ignore away. But your readers would like to know, and I’m certain they will be reassured by your answers.

    The hostility here is truly awesome. Call the Defense Department. If they could clone it, they could use it in wars. (This is you, Steve, isn’t it?)

    But really, it’s an honor to be hated this much. I must be making an impression!

    Here are answers to your questions:

    1. Have you ever performed as a regular member of a professional,

    semi-professional, or adult amateur orchestra? Chamber orchestra?

    Chamber ensemble? What was your instrument and for how long?
    I don’t have experience playing in orchestras. In earlier decades I was a singer, and sang leading roles in many semi-professional opera performances. Then I was a composer (MM degree from the Yale School of Music), and at school and afterward had many pieces performed, including a couple by orchestras. Plus I had operas produced, which had ensembles of various sizes, including one with full orchestra.

    2. Have you ever conducted a professional, semi-professional or adult amateur orchestra? How many seasons? Any reviews?

    I’ve never conducted a full orchestra. I’ve conducted school and (more often) professional groups. Some were playing my music. In the ’70s, around the time of the US bicentennial, I conducted many performances of excerpts from early American operas, which I’d orchestrated myself from the piano scores (which is all that remains of those pieces). The ensemble was string quartet and two oboes. I also conducted a small ensemble in operetta productions off-off-Broadway, also in the ’70s. Maybe the highest we got on the theater food chain was the Manhattan Theater Club. I’ve also conducted music for theater productions, either music that I wrote, or that someone else did. A lot of these performances got reviewed, but I don’t remember what the reviews said. I wouldn’t trust them, anyway. I wasn’t much of a conductor, and I can’t remember any reviewer noticing that. My favorite review was one I got when I sang the leading role of Balstrode in a Yale production of Peter Grimes. It said something like, “Sandow’s forte is his acting.” Which was quite true, of me as a singer!

    3. Have you ever held a salaried administrative position in the management of an orchestra or any other arts organization? If other than ED or AD, what position? For how long? Have you ever written a vision, goals & objectives statement for a large orchestra? Written a 5-year plan? Programmed or worked with a conductor to program the next season? Hired soloists and made arrangements for their care and feeding? Have you ever been responsible for the budget for a large organization? Have you ever led a fundraising campaign? Have you ever had to hire or fire a professional musician?

    That’s a lot of questions for one bullet point! I had to hire (and in one case fire) professional musicians when I conducted many of the performances I listed above. When I worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony on a series called Symphony with a Splash, I programmed it as well as hosting it, working with the artistic administrator and the associate conductor. I haven’t done any of the other things. But I’ve spoken extensively — and i do mean extensively — with executive directors about all these things, mostly EDs of large orchestras, though sometimes of smaller ones. Sometimes they’ve sought my advice. Sometimes they just spoke to me, sometimes at length, as friends. About how they dealt with all these problems. I’ve had friends in other high-ranking positions with orchestras. For several years I was a Fellow with the Mellon Foundation’s “Orchestra Forum,” a funding program that involved more than a dozen orchestras for many years. Twice a year there would be “convenings” (as the current term goes) of the orchestras, which all sent musicians, staff, and board members. My role was to attend any discussion I liked, and say anything I liked. I took part, in this role, in many, many, many, many discussions of all the things you’ve asked whether I’ve done. I tended to do much more listening than talking. And I also had extensive private discussions, as happens at meetings like that. These might be one on one, or else I might find myself in the middle of a group of orchestra people, ranging from musicians to board chairs to staff of all kinds. Often, as I’ve said, my opinion was asked. Often it was listened to. In one case I know of, a well-known orchestra acted on a suggestion of mine. I was treated, in all of this, very much as an insider, and while i’d never compare my knowledge or instincts to those of a true orchestra professional, I think I learned quite a bit about how orchestras function, and as far as I know was taken quite seriously by those I talked to. Some of those conversations continue to this day, when (let’s say) I have lunch with musicians, or orchestra board members, or staff members (including executive directors). I seem to have been invited to do all these things because of what i’ve written, both as a published critic (in the old days) and online. I’ve also worked as a paid consultant to a three orchestras, in one case dealing with new kinds of marketing, and in others with proposed innovations of other kinds.

    4. Do you now, or have you ever, served on the board of a professional,

    semi-professional, or adult amateur orchestra? Served on the board of

    ANY arts or other NFP organization? Been on the executive committee of a board? Been on the search committee to hire a conductor or AD or ED?

    Been involoved in an annual evaluation of an AD or ED?

    I’ve been on the boards of a couple of arts organizations, including one that was in quite a bit of trouble, and managed for a time to save itself. One of these was a small dance company, the other a non-profit record distributor, which at one time was the leading source of new music LPs. The answer to those other questions is no, I haven’t done those things. But I’ve certainly sat with executive directors and discussed, let’s say, the upcoming choice of a music director. I remember one conversation over dinner with the ED of a prominent orchestra, in which we went over in some detail quite a number of possible MD candidates, finally agreeing that one outshone the others, at least for this orchestra’s purposes. And in fact that was the MD they ultimately hired. Please understand that I’m not saying I influenced the choice, though I also don’t know that I didn’t. I’m just saying that I’ve been involved in these and similar discussions, informally, but at times extensively,with the people who did have to make the decisions.

    I have no idea if this helps anything, but I’ve done my best to answer the questions. And I forgot something — late in the ’70s I worked for the NY State Council on the Arts, evaluating grant applications in music. in that capacity, I had many long discussions with people in the artistic and business leadership of musical organizations of all sizes, all over NY state. And after I left that position, the Council hired me as a consultant, to help some of their applicants solve particular problems.

  8. Bill Brice says

    Sheese, Hamstrung! Did you miss the part where Greg observed the hard times orchestras are experiencing everywhere today? Surely it’s worthwhile to inquire into some of the possible causes for those hard times. And, no, it’s not exclusively (or even primarily) about The Recession. It’s about the aging (and shrinking) audiences for classical music in general, including orchestra concerts. Surely it’s reasonable to assume SOMETHING is wrong with how orchestra music is presented and promoted?

    You may label Greg’s observations as “attack”, but I agree with most of them. So very many orchestra performances — even carefully-prepared recordings! — have a ho-hum quality about them. The very best of orchestras tend to be meticulous about the low-level details — intonation, beauty of sound, rythmic exactness, etc — but careless about the overall shape and interaction among the sections — and unenthusiastic about the small and large changes of dynamic level.

    I have often been thrilled at performances by small civic orchestras or youth orchestras, which will show all sorts of performance blemishes, but which also can project the joy of performers really Experiencing their performance. Don’t you wonder why this quality is not more often sustained in the established, well-funded orchestras?

  9. a curious reader says

    Why So Serious Hamstrung? Nobody is forcing you to read this blog; you dont have to agree with anything Greg writes; you dont even have to take his thoughts worth a grain of salt but based on your reply — you do. A lot. Maybe even too much.

    I want you to see that I’m not supporting his comments, but more so I’m just pointing out that your attack has made you look like a total and complete tool.

  10. says

    I think this is a brilliant and brave series of articles. I salute you for the bravery to continue in your efforts to promote a future for classical musicians, in spite of the opinions of much of the current establishment. I, for one, have marked every post as “starred” in my reader and will be returning to them over and over again in coming months for reference.

    Best Regards,

    Jeff Prillaman

    Midlothian, VA

  11. Herbert Pauls says

    I rarely write in, but Hamstrung’s comments compel me to chime in (not that Sandow needs my defense).

    Hamstrung (do you really need to hide behind a false name??), I am among that sea of regular readers to which you refer. I have never met Sandow and he does not know me from a hole in the ground, but I have read this blog practically every week for many years and have sought out Mr. Sandow’s other articles as well. All I can say is that basically none of Sandow’s answers to your list of questions contain any real surprises to me. You seem to be somewhat in the dark as to his background (although I have trouble believing that). Go back into the archives and you will find all the info you want. He is a very well-known quantity in the music world and on the net. He regularly drops information that fills us in on things he is doing and has done in his life. He is genuinely concerned about the state of music and what he can do to help. He is constructive and treats his readers with great respect and patience. The discussions here are wide-ranging and fabulous. I would say that there are few out there with his uniquely wide frame of reference and few more qualified to even attempt to do what he is doing.

    I could say a few things about the orchestral quality question but I won’t. Suffice it to say that my wife has been playing in professional orchestras in Canada and Germany for 15 years…and yes, orchestras are open to scrutiny.


    Herbert Pauls


  12. Tom says


    Thanks for you reply to my comment to your previous blog. It may be too late for you to notice my reply considering the ruckus your latest blog post has created =D

    However, I will say this, as briefly as I can, since I doubt you’ll get around to reading it.

    Comparing movies to orchestral concerts is comparing oranges to apples.

    Movies are visual and verbal, and therefore much more accessible off the bat (pardon the ongoing baseball terminology pun, not intended) than orchestral concerts. No need to have a long debate about that, it’s a fact. Once people are exposed to something accessible, like movies or baseball, which they can readily understand, they may get really into the artform or sport. They then make it their hobby to obssess about details, stats, and comparisons in their free time. Therefore, they can have a conversation about a movie or ball game that might surprise a professional critic in its substance.

    This is in no way the case with orchestral concerts, which are so abstract that they require becoming informed a priori in many cases, if you want to go beyond a visceral reaction.

    Some people are able to grasp and appreciate a symphonic concert at a visceral level at first hearing, get interested, and try to learn more about the genre. Most can’t. Try telling me the story in Brahms’ 1st symphony or what the “action” in the orchestra was if I’m a neophyte. If I’m a country music fan, chances are 85% for me saying that was a nice experience, but don’t invite me again (about what my reaction would be if someone invited me to a country music concert – though I’m biased, since I have a number of classical music educations).

    I have been to many concerts, and I’ve heard audiences and my board members discuss the concerts they’ve just heard. The level of cluelessness is unbelievable! Even among board members and concert goers who have been attending concerts for many, many years. People rave about mediocre performances, and criticize a concert because the repertoire didn’t agree with them. And I even know that some of these people actually do quite a lot of homework by listening to classical music and reading about it.

    All this goes to prove the fallacy of your comparisons. Symphonic music simply requires a higher level of sophistication and education to be sufficiently comprehensible for a listener to discuss intelligently. Even when personal opinion is not a factor.

    Any reasonably educated person can fathom movies, plays, ball games, visual arts, even opera, after being exposed to them a few times. Such is simply not the case with abstract classical music, which requires comprehension on a highly abstract or theoretical level, for intelligent discussion. Hanslick was right about that one.

    Again, thanks for answering my commnent!

    And thanks for answering me back! I love these discussions.

    I think that in past generations — even in Hanslick’s time — orchestral music wasn’t considered at all abstract. Certainly in Mozart’s time, people followed it easily, applauding the moment they heard something they liked. There are stories from the early 19th century of audiences — when Beethoven’s symphonies began to be played with anything like regularity — crying out in wonder when they heard passages that amazed them.

    In past generations, top-rank classical artists used to make up stories that they thought the great instrumental works they played would tell. And the audience did, too. If you’ve never read it, please by all means read the famous passage about Beethoven’s Fifth in E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, in which a family goes to hear a concert, most of them 20 or younger. One of them makes up a fabulous scenario for the symphony. Forster doesn’t write as if this was anything unusual.

    I fear that what you’re saying about instrumental works being wholly abstract, and thus needing training and preparation to understand, isn’t true. And the belief in this causes problems, by (1) encouraging performances to be abstract, so that people don’t easily grasp them, and (2) encouraging people to believe that classical music is difficult, that they need to learn a lot before they can appreciate, and, most damaging, (3) that they shouldn’t trust their natural reactions to what they hear. Which might well be to make up stories.

    The classical forms in fact are very simple. Sonata form, which might seem the most difficult (though it can be explained in just a minute or two), is a narrative form, which means that it’s likely to result in pieces which naturally shape themselves into stories. And even its more abstract elements may not be too hard to hear. When I worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony, hosting and helping to program a concert series called Symphony with a Splash, aimed at newcomers to classical music, we did the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony. Mozart wrote a letter to his father about that piece, explaining just what he did to get the audience to applaud (during the music, of course). I told our audience that they were free to applaud anytime they wanted, as soon as they heard something they liked.

    So they applauded while the piece was going on, and did it often. And the most striking thing was that the applause from one moment to the next changed a lot in its volume and quality. The most vehement applause came at the moment when the recapitulation diverges from the exposition. This was an audience that doesn’t know sonata form. But they could hear that something new was happening. So they understand, on a gut level, one of the supposedly most subtle aspects of sonata form. Which means, I think, that these things are far less abstract and difficult than many of us think.