The culture I’ve seen

Orchestra culture, I mean. 

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.” 

That concludes my posts on orchestra culture, in my larger series on whether orchestras play as well as they might. Surely it’s clear that orchestras in which the things I’ve described in this post happen — no matter how good their performances might seem — could play better (more spontaneously, more imaginatively, more excitingly, more passionately, more raptly) than they do. 

The other posts in this series:

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  1. Guest says

    A few thoughts:

    When I received tenure I felt much relief, but the apathy I expected never arrived. I was still motivated to bring my best to the music.

    Over the years what I believe is best for the music has shifted-it’s not always about technique and hitting every single note. Let’s remember, composers write things that aren’t playable, or aren’t orchestrated well. So hopefully a thinking musician prioritizes as he or she plays even if it’s not talked about or asked for by a conductor or section leader. So just because someone is not nailing every passage does not mean they are dead wood. Of course there is dead wood as well that exists.

    Yes there is a culture of playing everything beautifully and not raw or untamed. Partly I hold recorded music accountable for this, for standardizing interpretations, and the conservatory ‘industry’. But it is up to the artistic leadership of an orchestra (ie guest conductor, music director)to take those chances. I believe most if not all musicians are ready to be reached by genuine leadership and try new things.

    If fact, that accounts for some of the cynicism you are describing. I wouldn’t take it all literally. There is disappointment when things aren’t perfectly together, so often we say we don’t care. I’m of course only speaking for myself and what I have heard others say. But that is a trend I have noticed.

    Great conductors are few and far between. I rarely see them. To me the definition of a great conductor is to lead and inspire, to embody their interpretation of the music, not just talk about it then more (or less) beat time. More often than not I see halfway competent conductors who tell us how to play verbally in rehearsal rather than moving with and feeling the music. That is as boring as being back in the classroom so it is easy for the orchestra to give a default performance in my opinion. Give us more Simon Rattles and Dudamels-I think you will have more American string players moving a la Berlin.

    Finally I would be very careful about drawing conclusions about the orchestras from the few examples you having noting in your column. Every orchestra is different, and all still have a lot to offer people. Does Brahms or Beethoven, or Stockhausen or Berg, need to be ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ to bring forth great emotion? And how many institutions of any kind offer risk on a regular basis?

  2. says

    I’m a jazz musician who now mainly listens to classical music. The comments on the bassoon solo in the “Rite of Spring” struck a chord with me, so to speak :)

    I’ve always wanted the soloists in symphonies to have a more personal character. I guess I’m always thinking of Duke Ellington and the way he used the distinct individual sounds of his musicians. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to hear Harry Carney play that bassoon solo!

    Mike Greensill

  3. says

    One of the many reasons I adore the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, is because I can see and hear the cooperative way in which the musicians play. They use stepped seating, which allows them to see each other, and within sections, as phrases are being passed in the orchestral writing, those players play like chamber musicians and soloists, listening to each other, matching approach and color. Even in the types of passages where various players come to the foreground and then recede, I hear so clearly the way the players are cooperating, pulling back their sounds, and forming chorales with players in other sections. You can hear that 90 pairs of ears are operating at full capacity. At every concert of theirs I have heard, there is, what seems to me to be a unity of approach within the sections (which includes stepping out and playing expressively and exuberantly when the opportunity is there) and a real sense that they are a giant chamber music ensemble. Although I might not see those players actually smile, I certainly HEAR the joy and spontaneity in their playing. And going up to them and speaking after concerts, I am aware of their spark and enthusiasm, something I have also noticed in speaking with Berlin Philharmonic players after their concerts.

    What is so different about their approach and structure that we could learn from here? Are there differences that could be replicated? How much of this is the orchestra, and how much is the relation between the orchestra and the conductor?

    Might you consider writing comparatively (with interviews) about the Met Orchestra (one of the highest morale groups in the US) and their performances and responses under varying conductors?

  4. richard says

    “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!””

    Is it any wonder that many composers have given up on writing for large orchestra. I know that I have. Unless one writes fairly straightforward, conventional rhythmns, the music is going to be slaughtered.

  5. says

    My own take (as a small-time conductor, teacher and author) on some of the orchestras in the U.S.

    New York: Isn’t it still recognized–long after his passing–as Lenny’s band? I don’t think that anyone since has energized the ensemble in the way that Bernstein did, right or wrong. The jury is obviously still out on Alan Gilbert as it’s too early to tell.

    Philadelphia: Subsequent MDs have worked hard to remove what they see as a thick patina on the venerable Philadelphia sound–the strings. Unfortunately, that is one thing that made this fine orchestra unique, rather than just another generic American symphony.

    Cleveland: Highly disciplined, well-polished, if not sometimes aloof. Of course, some of this remains from the tenure of George Szell and the overall pride that I feel the band has in its history.

    Chicago: the brass, the brass and more brass! Of course, much of this is due to the acoustical environment of their hall, which amplifies the brass instruments to the detriment of the strings. I’ve heard truly inspiring playing under Boulez and “phoned in” performances under Barenboim. What impact will Muti have on this orchestra? With his own spate of health issues, he has yet to offer a complete (that’s 8-12 weeks, right?) season. We’ll just have to see.

    Boston: Ah Boston; how one must long for the glorious days of Charles Munch. Regardless of what anyone says, Ozawa long overstayed his welcome. I never bought the argument of the “new Seiji” simply because (according to Donald Peck’s book) he spent too much time in front of the CSO actually learning the music! Levine seems to have succeeded in bringing long needed luster back to Symphony Hall, but now it is time for new (and younger) blood.

    And Los Angeles: to my ears, long a fine but somewhat undisciplined band (is it all that studio playing that the musicians do to supplement their incomes?) The new hall is, of course, dazzling but I’m not totally sold on Dudamel. It seems as though he offers a much more individualistic style and stamp on his work with the Simon Bolivar orchestra. But I seem to be in the minority.

    What other orchestras are worthy of mention with these?

  6. says

    I enjoyed these accounts, which bring to mind Berlioz’ “Evenings with the Orchestra,” the cutting satire of the motley musicians in a provincial orchestra pit, and the hilarious devices they use to allay their boredom while this or that wretched opera was being given. What Berlioz also points out is that every three weeks or so, the stars would align and the musicians would snap to attention for the performance of a work they knew to be truly great, as in Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” on the famously described 23rd evening:

    “The entire orchestra is filled with a religious respect for this immortal work and seems afraid of not being able to rise to the occasion….I see [the concertmaster] home. Seated in his modest room, lit up by the moon alone, we stay a long time motionless. [The concertmaster] raises his eyes for an instant to the bust of Gluck that stands on his piano. We gaze at it…The moon disappears. He sighs painfully, flings himself on his bed, and I leave. We have not uttered a single word.”

    While it’s the great artistic experiences we all live for, I admit I’ve spent my life around professional musicians and sympathize with their essential sardonic humor. During my student days in Chicago, there was no freelance job more lucrative or more dreadfully boring than the three-a-day “Nutcracker” ballets at McCormick Place during the winter holiday season. A couple of the string players — both of whom went on to outstanding careers — once rigged up a rear-view mirror on a music stand so they could watch as one of the dancers, in an ill-fitting pineapple costume, raised her arms to briefly expose too much upper torso.

    Despite what the musician said in casual conversation with you, I seriously doubt that players in the nation’s best orchestras are not masters of the rhythms in “Le sacre du printemps.” I think the level of technical performance is at an all time high. I do agree, however, that the majority of the top 20 orchestras in the U.S. (let’s say all but the top 5 or 6) employ their musicians to play seriously challenging concerts less than half the weeks of the year. The rest of the service budget is devoted to needless repetition and to relatively mindless ventures without top conductors to whom the musicians feel accountable. These are the box-office services that Berlioz would have skewered.

    I’ve often mused that orchestra musicians might be better off working fewer weeks at their same high weekly rate, with long stretches off to compose, play chamber music or otherwise re-charge. However, I did not imagine the draconian enforced changes we have recently seen in the orchestral group just below the top. I doubt this sudden destabilization will result in a finer artistic product very soon at the affected orchestras. Still, some shrinkage in the overall number of orchestras — and some re-thinking of what acoustical and digital instruments should be deemed essential to the core orchestral group — may suit music’s future best.

    Meanwhile, the cavalier humor, bizarre coping mechanisms, and a grin-and-bear-it cynicism in the workplace will endure as long as there is a single orchestra left on this planet. And perhaps, just often enough, the very greatest music will be made.

  7. Bill Brice says

    I, too, was interested in the bassoonist’s issue with the solo in ‘Le Sacre’. I had a teacher who’d played in several of the Columbia Records recordings conducted by Stravinsky; he often told us that Stravinsky had voiced his frustration that bassoonists had learned to play that opening so smoothly and “beautifully”. In my Walter-Mittyish conductor fantasies, I have sometimes wondered how I’d get a bassoonist to play it with the kind of strained roughness I’d want. It certainly couldn’t be a matter of the much-vaunted “stick technique” (I’ve never quite got just what that is!). And the worst possible approach would be to try to give a bassoon lesson to the principal bassoonist during a full orchestra rehearsal.

    I’d think the realistic way would be to have a one-one-one with the soloist, more or less in the way a theater or film director might work alone with an actor — as equals — to get just the feeling he’s after. To get there, the director has to both challenge the actor and give him the safety to venture outside his regular “beautiful technique”.

    But do orchestra conductors ever do this? I kind of doubt it (somebody please correct me if you know otherwise). I know some conductors do sectional rehearsals — which is a step in that direction — but that still doesn’t convey the feeling to a musician that he’s a true partner with the conductor; that the conductor can take his feedbackt. The traditional view of an orchestra conductor’s role doesn’t really include small-group exercises and discussions. If we’re very lucky, we may get that as music school students — but, even there, the conductor’s role is strongly modeled on the “real world” of professional organizations.

  8. Thomas says

    Hi Greg,

    Great discussion! BTW, found a terrific give and take in the comment of the July 22 post on CSO bassist Michael Hovnanian’s blog:

    Might you be able to interview him for a future blog?

    Would be great reading!

    Thomas Jöstlein

    St Louis Symphony associate Principal Horn

    Formerly, NY Phil (2007-09)

  9. says

    When I read your quote about the happiest day of a string player’s life is “the day they get tenure in an orchestra, and never have to practice again”, at first I laughed. But when I thought about it, it was a little bit sad also. How competitive it is to try to practice so hard to get tenure into an orchestra. Musicians spend hours and hard laborious work to get into an orchestra. I am a pianist so it is 50x harder to get tenure in an orchestra as a pianist. I wish more people could appreciate the work of a musician and appreciate the strenuous life they really have. Thanks for sharing.


  10. says

    I played the bassoon and distinctly always remember feeling left out. The Stravinsky piece you mention is a staple among bassoon college music majors, but is one of the very few pieces where a bassoon has such an exposed solo. Thanks for pointing it out. :)