A few years ago, I was visiting a friend, who also had another visitor — the concertmaster of a Group 1 orchestra (referring to the League of American Orchestras classification of orchestras by budget size, in which the 20-odd largest are in Group 1).
We were hanging out, talking in a relaxed, friendly way. And at one point, the concertmaster asked me, “What’s the happiest day in a string player’s life?”
The answer: “The day they get tenure in an orchestra, and never have to practice again.” Which was a joke. But — who’s going to deny this? — a joke with substance behind it. Orchestra string players, buried in large string sections, don’t always have to play their best. And, if I’m to believe this concertmaster, often do coast. or at least often enough to make a black-humor joke about it.
I remember asking a violinist in another Group 1 orchestra — one of the nation’s largest — how his section stayed together when they played the tricky rhythms in the Sacre du printemps. His answer — and this was a man I’d met maybe 10 minutes before — “We don’t!”
At one of the biannual gatherings of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Orchestra Forum — attended by board, staff, and musicians from more than a dozen orchestras — I joined with the executive director of a well-known orchestra to organize a discussion for musicians. Our topic: Why don’t orchestra musicians smile when they play?
Maybe 15 musicians came to this meeting, from both large and mid-sized orchestras. When we posed our question, their immediate answer was: “Why should we smile? The conductors are so bad that there’s nothing to smile about.” Of course that echoes the findings of studies I quoted in my last post — it’s well-established that the quality of conductors is one of orchestral musicians’ most common complaints.
I think you can see where I’m going here. My own conversations with orchestra musicians don’t lead me to believe there’s a constructive artistic culture in our orchestras. I don’t deny that musicians try very hard, that some conductors are really good, that the overall level of performance is quite decently high, or that some performances aren’t (once in a while, anyway) visionary.
But on an everyday level, there’s something less than full artistic satisfaction. Remember the student from my Juilliard course this past spring, who said that when she takes an orchestra audition, her playing has to be “precise, mechanical, robotic,” because what the orchestras are looking for is, first and foremost, uncreative perfection.
Echoing that, most people involved with orchestras surely know Robert Vernon’s workshops for violists, in which Vernon (the principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra) teaches people who play his instrument what they have to do to get orchestral jobs. He tells them exactly how to play the viola passages from the orchestral repertoire that they’ll be asked to play at their auditions. Exactly how to play them. No deviations allowed. This is how they have to play, if they want to get a job.
I understand completely that orchestras need discipline. In any performance, everyone has to be on the same artistic page. But from what my student says, and what Vernon does, would you think that orchestras might just be deselecting the most creative talent they might otherwise attract?
The principal bassoonist of one of America’s absolutely top orchestras talked to me once about playing the Sacre du printemps. He said he thought Stravinsky wanted the opening bassoon solo to sound wild and raw. Nobody, after all, had ever written such a wildly high and exposed passage for the instrument before. But now, the bassoonist said, every bassoonist learns the solo in school, and can play it very smoothly. If, he added, he tried to make it wild and rough in one of his orchestra’s performances, the conductor and audience would surely think he didn’t know how to play. So he’d never do it.
After I talked to him, i happened to find myself with two of this orchestra’s clarinetists. I told them what the bassoonist said. They said they felt the same way about the “critics” section of Ein Heldenleben, in which Strauss uses high clarinets to mimic the raucous screams of critics, who try to shoot the hero down. This music, these clarinetists said, should sound wild and raw. But if they played it that way…same refrain. The conductor and the audience would think they couldn’t play.
Does this paint a picture of an orchestra — and in this case, one of the best we’ve got — as a place where creative musicmaking can freely take shape?
In one of my earlier posts on all of this, I mentioned the musicians at one of the Mellon meetings, who complained that their music director would stop the orchestra at rehearsals, and then start talking before every one of the musicians had actually stopped playing. Which meant that some of the musicians didn’t hear all of what was said.
In the years this music director had been with them, no musician (as far as I know) ever spoke up about this problem. The music director of course wasn’t there (no music director, to my knowledge, ever attended these gatherings, except one from a smaller orchestra, who came once). Nor was anyone from the orchestra’s management. So the musicians were, in effect, talking to themselves.
No blame for that — they were glad to have the chance to vent. But what they needed, I’d think, was the chance to vent to the music director, so that this very simple problem could be fixed.
And if they couldn’t talk about a mere procedural detail, does anyone think they could bring up something serious about how the orchestra played?
I’m not cherry-picking these examples, extracting them from a larger store of anecdotes that point a different way. My experience, over the years, is that orchestra musicians talk as if their artistic freedom was very sharply circumscribed, even if they themselves might not see it that way. I think they’re so used to things the way they are, they often can’t imagine anything different.
After a Berlin Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall a few years ago, I ran into a musician from the New York Philharmonic whom I happened to know. Berlin, I think, is all but universally acknowledged to be the world’s beset — and most inspiring — orchestra, an institution run by its musicians, who show great commitment and great autonomy while they play, not least in the way they move, putting their entire bodies into every note.
“Did you see that?” the Philharmonic musician asked me, almost levitating (as, I think, we all were, from how wonderfully the musicians played). “Did you see how they move? If I moved like that, I’d be reprimanded.”