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February 15, 2008

Hearing an Orchestra with our Eyes

I've noticed lately more frequent conversations about the visual aspect of symphony orchestra concerts - or, more precisely, about the lack of a significant visual element. But these have not been conversations about video enhancement, colored lighting, or any use of technology. Rather they have been about the look of the stage at a traditional concert...

A few different things sparked some of these conversations. One was the appearance of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra on its U.S. tour. "Good Heavens! These kids look like they're actually enjoying the music!" That has been a typical reaction of those who have experienced this Venezuelan miracle. More pointedly, I've heard "wouldn't it be nice if our orchestra players looked as if they loved what they are doing." Another stimulus for some of these thoughts, with two colleagues of mine, was a Berlin Philharmonic video of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with Abbado. Both commented on the sheer physicality of the musicians' playing, the fact that the music obviously engaged every fiber of their bodies.

Sadly, my experience with many (dare I say most) American orchestra musicians, when I have raised this subject, has not been good. The mere thought that a visual element had any importance in their music-making brings forth sneers, derision, or anger. Trying to explain to an orchestra, for instance, that risers are important for visual reasons and unless they absolutely destroy acoustical balance (as opposed to simply creating a new acoustical environment to which musicians must adjust) they are important ingredients in the way an audience experiences a concert, can be a very futile conversation. The fact that most people on the main floor cannot see the whole orchestra, or even a majority of it, without risers, seems simply irrelevant to many musicians. The idea that their facial expressions, their demonstration of an emotional engagement with the music beyond the craft of playing the notes, could be important elements in the viability and future success of orchestras in this country, is laughed it.

People do not leave their eyes at home when they attend concerts. What we hear is connected to what we see, and there is an interdependence of senses that no rational person would deny. We are dealing with a generation of people who have grown up wired differently from those who matured before the ubiquitous presence of television, let alone the Internet. I am not convinced, though, that this is even a new, post-television issue. Read contemporary accounts of the great virtuosos of the 19th century and you will find detailed descriptions of the importance they clearly placed on how they looked.

I am not seeking fake emotions or choreographed movement. But I do not believe that the intense involvement physically demonstrated by the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic or other European orchestras that I've seen is fake. Something in the music resonates with their internal being. And somehow that seems different in this country. Is it the way our musicians are taught? Is it some reserve in the American character, a resistance to showing emotional engagement? I don't know the answer, but I believe that we need to discuss and explore the question.

Orchestras are making strides in at least thinking about this. Ten or fifteen years ago, virtually no American orchestra actually stood and faced the audience when bowing. The musicians frequently looked at each other, swabbed out clarinets, put away timpani sticks, even talked to each other, while the audience was applauding them. Today, more and more orchestras stand straight and face the audience. If we're fortunate, the next step will be smiles.

In my career as an orchestra administrator, I received letters fairly often from audience members asking, in effect, why the musicians looked bored or, worse, as if they hated their jobs. I've received letters from children at youth concerts telling how much they enjoyed the music, but wondering why the orchestra looked angry, or sad. Frequently when I've tried to raise the issue for discussion, the mocking response really deterred any serious exploration of the issue.

When I go to a restaurant, I want the food to be superb. But pleasant service and an attractive room are elements of the experience too, and will affect how frequently I come back. More and more, as we compete with a greater range of ways in which people can spend their discretionary dollars, we had better be aware of the complete experience we offer our public.

Posted by hfogel at February 15, 2008 12:29 PM

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I've always considered the visual aspect very important, which is one reason I always sit in the highest part of the hall (also because those are the cheap seats and usually the best-sounding); if I can't see the orchestra's working parts, it really diminishes the experience.

I can understand orchestra musicians not wanting to engage in some kind of movement, especially if it's choreographed in some way; playing 120+ concerts a year, the charm would soon wear off and it would become an annoying affectation like the concertmaster entrance. And many no doubt find it incompatible with playing well. How the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic musicians manage to do their movement and make it seem organic is beyond me. But I'll agree it makes a huge impression; it conveys not just a sense of enjoyment but of stylistic cohesion; watch the Vienna PO move in their New Years Day concert and the main impression is that they understand each other and that they "get" Strauss waltzes in a way no other orchestra does.

The one time I heard the Berlin PO in concert (in DC in 2003) it was nothing excessive, but you could see the players' engagement in their body movements. To me it exuded confidence as much as enjoyment. Two nights later I went to hear the National Symphony, and while they played well, it was such a letdown, in some part, I think, because I just didn't sense the same degree of engagement by the players.

I usually like to go hear good youth or college orchestras, in part because even if you don't see Berlin or Vienna-type movement, you still get a feeling like every player is deeply invested in the performance.

I will give some credit to your former colleagues at the Chicago Symphony; any time I have seen them in concert or on television, while I didn't see movement, I have perceived very serious concentration reflecting the immense professional pride of people at the top of their field working hard to play as best they can. It's quite compelling.

I agree with Marko completely in his saying that if the movements were choreographed in some way it would not wear well at all. I've seen the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics many times, and part of why it never wears out its welcome is precisely because it is not choreographed. No one plans or organizes it. It is a truly genuine body response to the music on the part of each individual musician.

Posted by: Marko Velikonja at February 15, 2008 3:12 PM

I think most would agree that the level of playing is very high in this country. Our top orchestras give up nothing to Europe's best. In this country there is less investment in the visual aspect of music making, at least in symphony orchestras. I think the harsh reaction you get from players when addressing this issue is a complicated one. First of all, like all professionals, we have our way of doing business. We have our individual ways and we have our collective ways. Nobody wants to change for the sake of changing. If the argument is that it looks better and we will have happier customers and maybe more of them, many players may find that insulting. There will be the music only types, there will be those who simply don't agree, but more importantly there is the naive factor on the management side. As a group, orchestras are very skeptical of all "artistic" ideas that get handed down because they have simply never worked. Whether or not you are right is almost beside the point. Every year it gets harder and harder to win an orchestra job. Every year orchestras play "better." We do virtually everything that is asked of us within reason, but nothing has really made a difference. The conductors who generally ask for a more visual style of playing are usually not the best musicians we see, to put it mildly. And for someone from marketing or public relations to suggest it is even more insulting.
Let me be clear, I mostly agree with you. I would love for my work place to be more vibrant in concert. Unfortunately, we don't have one. Most orchestras don't, but the ones that do show it. In a way I can empathize with board members, marketers, and maybe even conductors who want to see smiles and high fives like they may see in a handful of places. In the rare times when a real musician is on stage in front of my ICSOM orchestra the demeanor of the group changes on stage and off. Sometimes it is that simple. However, simply asking or in some cases yelling for more team spirit is just foolish.

Posted by: Rob at February 16, 2008 7:58 PM

Interesting commentary. I remember 30 years ago when I saw the Chicago Symphony for the first time that their players at least appeared by their body language to be more engaged in the music than was the case with our local band (The Minnesota Orchestra). They also were quite a bit better, on the whole as players.

Since then the Minnesota has replaced most of its musicians, they obviously play better than before, and you also see more physically engaged playing--although not to the extent throughout the orchestra that you see with the Vienna Phil.

The question of movement, though, is tricky. How much is productive and when does it get in the way of concentrating and hearing what you are producing? Bernard Holland (NY Times) had an essay the other day on the subject using solo pianists as examples. Predictably, he came down on the side of "Apollonian" types who don't emote all over the place.

Vladimir Horowitz famously did not move much, and he didn't like players who did. (Same for Earl Wild, who has been outspoken on the subject.) Someone once wrote that Rudolph Serkin--with his motion and facial gestures "looked" the way Horowitz sounded!. Lang Lang seems to have made a career by emoting, but his playing is boring, to my ears.

If you look at Horowitz on You Tube, however, you will see a deeply committed musician who does move around a bit--sort of like what you see with Vienna Philharmonic players.

It would be instructive to hear from Sam Bergman (AJ editor & orchestra violist) on this subject.

Posted by: Brent Stahl at February 17, 2008 6:51 PM

We can learn from the choirs. I recently attended a performance of the St. Olaf Choir during their tour in San Diego, conducted by Anton Armstrong. Anton moved minimally, but the choir, holding hands, moved as they felt naturally inclined when the music moved them. Nothing overt, just natural. I remember the choir director of the 'Kennedy Choir', one of the high school choirs where I was from in Plainview, Long Island. Their director, Ron Cohen (remember 'Mr. Holland's Opus'?) was their mentor and leader, and modeled his choral experience on the choirs such as St. Olaf, Luther Choir, Pacific Lutheran Choir (was 'Choir of the West') in this tradition of holding hands and moving to the music. Physical reaction while performing is normal and communicative, when not overdone (reference Bernard Holland's recent article ''When Histrionics Undermine the Music and the Pianist,'' by Bernard Holland (Arts pages, Feb. 6). For me, watching, closing eyes, watching again, makes for an organic and complete experience.

Posted by: Jeffrey Biegel at February 18, 2008 7:18 AM

This is a PERSONAL observation - not a prescription for anyone else.

When I am moving more than just my fingers and bow arm when I play the double bass, I am able to play better. The connection to the music is enhanced.

Unfortunately, we too often find ourselves in cramped quarters where movement isn't much of an option. Also, the practical consideration of sharing a music stand with another bassist limits movement compared to when I have my own stand.

For me, movement is not an added task; it is part and parcel of making music and if the audience enjoys that, so much the better.

Posted by: tom reel at February 18, 2008 12:25 PM

Odd that no one is discussing the role the conductor plays in the visual presentation of the music. Here in Boston, James Levine, has adopted a minimalist approach to conducting. This is probably due to physical infirmity, although he claims it is because he believes that making any overt show distracts from the music and the audience should be experiencing the music directly and not through him. However, having just attended two weeks of concerts conducted by Sir Colin Davis I realized what I had been missing at Mr. Levine's performances. I am not fond of dancing conductors, however, I do feel that the conductor is not only leading the orchestra, but also providing a visual guide into the music for the audience. Mr. Levine's withholding of this assistance may be a partial explanation as to why he has not had much success selling his more obscure program choices to the greater part of the audience. Likewise, I would find a visually overly emotive orchestra rather tiresome, but it is important that they seem involved and interested in what they are doing, even if it happens to be an evening when they are not.

Posted by: Jim at February 19, 2008 6:33 PM

I loved your statement about an audience not leaving its eyes at home. Music ought to look at least as good as it sounds. At times it looks better; as an Mahler's symphonies, for example, where the medium, so to speak, has more beauty and structure than the message. The sight of a great orchestra (or quartet, or recitalist) can always inspire. Why aim for less?

Posted by: David Landau at February 19, 2008 7:22 PM

Couldn't agree more. Around here, the Fort Worth Symphony musicians do actually turn toward the audience and smile for applause. Dallas Symphony musicians tend to look as though they're on their way to colonoscopies.

Posted by: Scott Cantrell at February 19, 2008 9:12 PM

Great discussion here! I agree with Jeffrey Biegel and find that moving even slightly helps me realize PHRASING and emotional building/relaxing, without which music makes no sense to me. However, occassionaly I find this puts me at odds rhythmically with my principal who may FEEL and LEAD the downbeat slightly differently! So it's both helpful and harmful!
The chamber groups I play in, audience often comment how much they enjoy seeing us EMOTE and "dance". I believe this is one reason why jazz and rock bands are "more entertaining" en masse. In the orchestra, I think only the principals and conductor really NEED to lead with movement and conviction.

Posted by: Rick Robinson at February 21, 2008 12:20 PM

I have been a member of an important American orchestra for several years and have had the pleasure of performing with the Berlin Philharmonic on occasion. I have always been one of those who move quite a bit, and it has proven to be a problem for me here in the States, especially when I was undergoing tenure review. I was told that my movements caused me to stick out or worse, that I looked like I was trying to lead from the section.

When I played in Berlin I found that almost everybody moved as I did; it was truly chamber music on a grand scale (by the way, this issue of movement would never come up with say, a string quartet). It was wonderfully gratifying to connect with the players in my immediate vicinity through eye contact and physical gesture. At any given time we were actually playing duets, quartets or sextets. When I mentioned to my stand partner that I had been criticized for moving too much, he gave a bewildered laugh and shook his head - it was an utterly foreign concept.

Why move? Obviously it is essential to good ensemble playing, especially in a group as unwieldy as a full orchestra. Yes, the conductor should ideally be clear, but with players across a stage with perhaps fifty feet or more separating them there really needs to be more than a solitary baton holding it all together. When the conductor's stick technique is less than perfect, as it often can be, the musicians must take matters of ensemble into their own hands, and reading physical cues is the only way. We aren't telepaths after all.

Orchestra musicians can be frustrated by the lack of opportunities to express themselves musically as individuals. Indeed the nature of the job is performance as a collective entity, led by a singular, hopefully trusted interpreter. My experiences underscore the fact that a seemingly contradictory existence is key in bringing both musical gratification to the musicians and in creating the kind of powerful performances we all treasure from our orchestras: when we are free to express ourselves as individuals through movement, and are not quite so obsessed by conformity, we actually facilitate greater unanimity of ensemble and musical purpose.

Posted by: M at February 22, 2008 12:04 AM

For many years I narrated children's concerts of the DSO -- both at the Music Hall and the first season or so in the Meyerson. The terrible truth is that the early morning call(s), the programming, the "uneducated" audience clearly irritated the majority of the players whose negative body language was clear to me and, I daresay, just as clear to the kids.

Well, there was one morning of smiles -- guffaws, really -- when the then-concert master conducted a joke- telling session with those around him while I was attempting to prepare the students for the next Beethoven selection. That sort of disrespect for the purpose of the concert is, I hope, a thing of the past. The students had been prepared by the teachers to have "respectful" manners at the concert. Nobody seemed to teach the unruly musicians. What a lost opportunity.

Posted by: Jac Alder at February 25, 2008 10:32 PM

Interesting points raised here. I have often sat in the audience during a night off from playing bass in the St. Louis Symphony. I'm often saddened by the lack of visual interest among my colleagues both in terms of enthusiasm and "wardrobe choices." However in our defense having bankruptcy constantly looming over our heads and stagnant declining wages and benefits for more than a decade can sap one's enthusiasm. Combine that with houses that are regularly half-full (audience energy can be very inspiring) and you get the picture. If I was in the Berlin Phil, the highest paid orchestra in the world, playing with the greatest conductors to packed houses, I would twirl my bass during each rest.

Posted by: Erik Harris at March 5, 2008 9:20 PM

Very insightful commentary on the orchestra scene today. Some thoughts on this, albeit a couple of weeks after this post.

As a cellist who has seen many of his friends go through the rigorous audition process and finally land an orchestra gig, and as an audience member to numerous orchestra (and other classical) concerts, it seems as though the roots of this issue lay quite deep.

As a teacher, I'm all for getting the student to play with an individual voice, to connect with the music and learn how to emote through the instrument.

So, for too many kids who have been practicing their entire life go through the insane process of auditioning and reauditioning. By now, many of them are already playing non-musically and are already on the path to becoming a good participant in the orchestra blend, team what have you. They've learned how to not stick out (particularly for string players).

Then, they're processed. For instance: So there's a job opening and let's say 100, of whom at least 5-10 are qualified for the job. But they take no one.

Or... missed a couple notes, didn't make the next round...
Repeat 10 times or so...

Finally, one or more of them finally does get a gig. Unfortunately, within a short time, if they haven't already, they realize that this is a job. They eventually go to the office, they play their concerts and collect their paychecks. (There are those few who still really dig music and I admire them greatly, for that's the whole reason to see a concert.)

Now this can go for any musician whose passion has run dry and is certainly not limited to orchestras... Or to those musicians who got in that orchestra and are rather stuck up and snobby because they got this job and can keep it... "Please, don't tell me to move... how low-class..."

In classical music performances, though, this boredom factor is augmented by the fact that there are no light shows, no stomping of feet, no intense sensory cues... It's up to the musicians to hold us for that time, but it's too often so constricted and there's little room for enjoyment.

As an audience, we don't necessarily want an escape or to feel an adrenaline rush for 2 hours, but we want to see our fellow people inspire us within this medium which cannot properly be described in words. We come to feel the energy that pulls us into that world and allows us to seek it outside in our own lives.

So many who aren't artists are thirsting for art, but are getting a generic substitute... many don't even realize it.

If the artist doesn't feel the music, which therefore doesn't allow him to move, how can we expect to be moved ourselves?

So, classical music in general should loosen up... not try to be so perfect. They sound like noticians rather than musicians. I say this of many soloists, as well.

Get rid of the notion that the sound - Mr. Engineer - has to be pristine to the point of emptiness.

Teachers, don't simply frown on your student's obvious mistakes, but seek to lead them to a place where they can inspire those around them with the way they are involved with their art.

Some of the best performances I've ever heard were those that transcended the few or many mistakes therein. Give me mistakes, as long as I can have music.

Until that happens, I'll continue to attend jazz, rock and other concerts where the musicians are completely involved with each moment - and thereby be motivated to practice, pursue my art, and enjoy life.

Posted by: Randy Fromme at March 10, 2008 4:01 AM