About orchestra culture…
Greg – we talk about performance all the time – it’s called rehearsal. While it’s primarily led by the conductor, there are always side discussions within sections and sections taking time during rehearsal breaks or after rehearsal to go over passages. And – individual players can focus on their own performance during their own practice, which is informed by years of intense scrutiny. And and – we always talk about the way the orchestra is playing during breaks and between rehearsal and concerts. I think it’s a big mistake to leave performance quality and artistic decisions as the sole province of the music director, but my experience is that musicians talk more about quality and the orchestra’s shortcomings than any other topic, and we all make artistic decisions every time we put the bow on the string or make the air in our instruments vibrate.
I should first say that I respect these thoughts a lot, not least because I know and respect Henry, and because (as I think we all know) the Cleveland Orchestra plays with tremendous care and polish. It’s also an orchestra that has had an ethic (so to speak) about playing well. They don’t (unlike some orchestras) play their best only with a conductor they like, and only at important concerts. I once heard some of their musicians play a show for kids and their parents, in a school gym. I don’t think they’d have played any better if this had been a full orchestral concert, on tour in Vienna.
But I think — again with respect — that Henry’s comments show what I might call an atomized state of artistic caring. He tells us that the orchestra works on artistic matters, as a community, in these ways:
- They have rehearsals
- At rehearsals, players have private talks or else talks in their sections about how they’re doing, and may take extra time to go over specific passages
- Individual players practice their parts [and when they're in the Cleveland Orchestra, I'll add, they'll practice very carefully]
- They talk about performance quality during breaks, and between rehearsals and concerts
- They make artistic decisions every time they play even a single note
Henry’s third and last points refer to things the players do alone. And the conversations he talks about in his second and fourth points are private, one on one, or among small groups. What’s missing is any orchestra-wide discussion of performance quality. The closest they might come, to judge from what Henry says, is when sections — led, very likely, by the section leader (the principal player in that section) — discuss problems that may have come up in their playing.
But what happens when there’s a large problem? What happens when, in the opinion of other players in the orchestra, a section isn’t playing well enough? What happens when the players don’t like the music director’s way of making music, or take strong exception to what the music director wants to do in a particular piece? What happens when many people in the orchestra think that, just maybe, the orchestra doesn’t play (let’s say) Baroque music as well as it should? What happens when everyone knows that one of the principals is getting, sadly, older, and doesn’t play as well as he or she used to?
Well, you can say that many of these things are the music director’s problem. And that if the players don’t like the music director, then they’re stuck with him or her, unless they can make some private noise before the music director’s contract is renewed.
But that only underlines how atomized the players are, how much of their artistic work is done in private, or at the command of someone else. And how few ways — if any — there are within most orchestras (and the Cleveland Orchestra, I’ll say again, is better than most) to deal communally with artistic problems.
Orchestras, to summarize, do have artistic discussions, largely in private. But they don’t seem to be organized as self-directing artistic entities. (Except, of course, orchestras like the London Symphony or especially the Berlin Philharmonic, in which the musicians are legally the owners of the orchestra.)
As a result, the players groused, they couldn’t hear some of what the music director said.
A small problem, you might say? Sure. But note that it had been going on for years, and that nothing was ever done about it. Nobody said anything to the music director. Or to the management, to be passed on to the music director. The players were atomized. They could complain about this to each other, or bring it up at a small and private minor meeting during one of the Mellon gatherings. None of their board and staff were present, and certainly not the music director. They weren’t about to bring this up at a meeting everyone was at.
And never, not once, did any of the Mellon gatherings I was at address any problem like this. There was, at one point, a private discussion in which musicians from one participating orchestra told their executive director, in a very heartfelt way, that they didn’t like the music director. Who then was removed, as part of a truly notable revamping of many aspects of the orchestra, in which (among other things) the players agreed to take less money, in exchange for greater artistic and administrative control.
But things like that are rare, to say the least, among American orchestras. And note that, wonderful as the outcome was, the discussion I heard was done in private. Atomized, again, though in this case in a wonderfully healthy way.
How bad can this get? I’ve been reliably told that in one not small American orchestra, there’s a violinist who hasn’t played a note for years, in rehearsals or performances. He/she plays air violin, miming the gestures of playing, but not producing any sound.
And this, I’m told, goes uncorrected, though surely every musician in the orchestra must know about it. You’d think a musician who quite literally didn’t play would be fired. You’d think the other musicians wouldn’t stand for it. And, let’s be fair, in many orchestras, or surely most of them, this situation really wouldn’t be tolerated.
But that it can exist — if my information is correct — in one not small orchestra would seem to demonstrate that artistic matters aren’t (strange as this may seem) dealt with in any systematic way.