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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: What makes or breaks an orchestra performance for you?

August 28, 2009 at 8:32 PM

I recently attended an orchestra concert, as an audience member, which left me completely unmoved.

It was a good orchestra, too. I became aware of my overall lack of engagement mid-way through the concert, and just as I was asking myself "Why?" a friend, a non-musican, leaned over and asked, "So what makes a bad conductor? How does that show itself in an orchestra?"  Hmmm, was she having the same problem as I was?

I started to explain: the musicians, even very good ones, lose some confidence in the performance under a bad conductor, because they are startled with unexpected gestures or inaccurate beating. The energy of the music is interrupted, etc.

But was it the conductor? Maybe. How about the fact that it was outdoors, and I was hearing most of it through speakers? Not exactly my cup of tea. Or it was the wooden chairs, or the strange assortment of pieces chosen? Or the fact that it was too dark to read the program, even if I'd wanted to?


What makes or breaks an orchestra performance for you? You can speak from either being inside the orchestra, or watching from the audience.


From Dietrich Lasa
Posted on August 28, 2009 at 8:42 PM

What makes us engaged and happy both as performing musicians and as members of the audience? My opinion may surprise you although it may seem so obvious. It's how we relate to music and the people who are present. Do the members of the orchestra and the conductor relate to the sound they produce with love, do they relate to the audience with love? If that's the case, the audience will sense this and get engaged with spontaneous appreciation. It helps if the orchestra plays well but in my opinion that covers less than one third of the matter.

From Bethany Morris
Posted on August 28, 2009 at 9:51 PM

I will never forget an experience I had seeing one of the best orchestras in the country (I won't say which one) perform the Firebird suite.  It is one of my favorite pieces, and I performed it myself with an All-State orchestra in high school.  I got so excited to hear this piece, and then the musicians played it with such disinterest that I was disgusted.  At least my All-State performance, although not technically perfect, was very enthusiastic, as I think the music requires.

From Royce Faina
Posted on August 29, 2009 at 12:38 AM

pyrotecnics! (sp?).


From Gail Tivendale
Posted on August 29, 2009 at 1:57 AM

I agree with Deitrich. Andre Rieu and his orchestra love what they do and it shows.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on August 29, 2009 at 3:45 AM

 A performance dies when someone starts talking from the podium. 

From Tess Z
Posted on August 29, 2009 at 4:49 AM

I can be engaged in most any live performance providing the musician(s) enjoy what they are playing.  I've had the same 'disinterest' at many concerts.  Sometimes I wonder if certain pieces aren't over-played to the point that the musicians become bored and it shows in the final product.

My favorite performance venue these days is attending student recitals at a nearby music college.  The hall is intimate, the performer(s) is always eager to please and the performances can be extraordinary...and they are often playing obscure pieces.   I think we need more connection between audience and musician and that often is lacking with a large orchestral performance. 

Or...we become emotionally attached to favorite recordings and when we go to listen to these same pieces the performing orchestra doesn't measure up so we leave unfulfilled.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 29, 2009 at 12:38 PM

Happiness is a good stand partner.  Bonus happiness is a good CM. 

As for attending recitals and concerts, audience behavior can make or break it for me.  The art of focused, active listening seems to be as dead as the typewriter.  And yes, when someone three inches away is tapping on buttons, with a glowing blue screen, it does tend to ruin my concentration.  And now, I will go yell at kids to get off my yard...

From Royce Faina
Posted on August 29, 2009 at 1:39 PM

I remember my orchestra conductor in college tell us that for the most part, it comes down to those on the stage.  It's a chain.  And if it's solid then, barring a fire in the auditorium, the performance is made or broke by everyone on stage.

As for the Conductor addressing the audience, it depends on your audience, mostly their familiarity of the music and weather they should have their appitite whetted, or some back ground information which will have them leaving a little more educated to classical music.... they got a little more out of it than they thought they would.

R. Faina

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 29, 2009 at 1:58 PM

I picked choice of repertoire in the poll, but it's not just that one thing.  Most of the things you had listed there can make a difference for me.  If it's an unfamiliar piece I like program notes, and I can like someone speaking from the podium, especially if it is the composer.  And I like outdoor concerts, but wouldn't like it through speakers. And, in contrast to the majority choice in the poll, I find that quality of musicians doesn't make very much difference to me, above a certain basic level.  I enjoy youth and community orchestra concerts too, sometimes more than professional ones.  They tend to play in smaller, more intimate, less formal venues, and I like there to be a little informality and less distance between the orchestra and the audience. 

From Kim Vawter
Posted on August 29, 2009 at 4:25 PM

Beautiful music:   Done well with joy! 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on August 30, 2009 at 6:33 AM


although the conducter is a major factor it really boils down to the musicians in the end ;)  A few years ago I attended a concert by the Czech Philharmonic that Vladimir Ashkenazy was doing his best to destroy.  The orchestra wisely ignored him and played wonderfully  No prizes for guessing who got the kudos though...



From Rosalind Porter
Posted on August 30, 2009 at 4:24 PM

Corwin - I agree with your comment wholeheartedly when it refers to some member of management coming out on-stage welcoming us all to the concert and then going on and on about "thanking all our donors and sponsors for making tonight's concert possible..."   Everyone in the audience can easily discover who the sponsors are by opening the programme - where they usually have more prominence than the actual musicians and music!   It is one guaranteed thing to dampen that special atmosphere of anticipation right before the concert.

I have often enjoyed and appreciated comments from conductors/musicians/composers from the podium about their music (not talking about pre- or post- concert talks here) but as with all things - some people have a real talent for communication and some people don't...  This fact should be established BEFORE they stand up in front of an audience!

I wanted to tick several options on Laurie's list of answers - but of course being strict she only allowed us one!   I've been to concerts where the surroundings were awful (pouring down with rain at outdoor gig) but the music blew away all the discomfort.   I've been to concerts which were absolutely fantastic musically where the evening was ruined by over-zealous, rude behaviour from hall and management staff, or by a late-comer being allowed to take their seat just at a particularly atmospheric and crucial point in the music-making.    (Seems to be a particular problem in USA venues in my opinion...)

Sometimes something totally unexpected can "make" a concert.  I remember one gig I attended as an audience member - an early afternoon matinee concert in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein - it was Dvorak's Requiem if I remember rightly, and just at one very moving point of the work, the late afternoon setting sun came out and dusty rays of golden burnished light instantaneously shone through the windows on the right side of the hall for a few special minutes.  It was an absolutely awesome moment and you could sense many in the audience shared that feeling.  Wonderful.

Conductors and musicians alike can "make or break" concerts...   whether through great performances or by being plain incompetent!   But, sometimes a concert might have technical imperfections but be great because of the atmosphere generated by the artists.  (Slava's farewell chamber music concert in Vienna for example -obviously totally under-rehearsed but you'd never have wanted to miss it in a million years...!)  

The other thing which can "make" a concert for me is when at the end of a piece, there is that rare phenomenon of "loud silence" - when the music ends but for a few precious seconds there is absolutely no sound - or movement - in the hall, the silence is so tangible you can feel it and "hear" it even though there IS no sound...  Hard to explain but a very special moment.

From Nigel Keay
Posted on August 30, 2009 at 5:47 PM

I voted for repertoire, but there are some factors listed that are very interdependent; certain repertoire will demand that the musicians be very good etc. so hard to pick just the one aspect. And of course a sub-standard conductor can do a lot of damage....

I agree wholeheartedly though with the first poster, Dietrich Lasa. I can think of one performance I heard of Mahler 7 where everything seemed in place, but it wasn't really communicating, no doubt because of that missing ingredient.

From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on August 31, 2009 at 2:44 AM

 From personal experience and observing orchestras, I'd say that most often the orchestra musicians have to carry the day, regardless of  bad, incompetent, or uninspired and unclear conducting from the podium, but, it's even better when the conductor inspires and the musicians feel compelled to give their all. If the conductor is giving his or her all, but the musicians aren't into it or are indifferent, my experience has been that the performance will not succeed. To be fair, conductors don't get to practice with their instrument, the orchestra, nearly as much as we violinists, for example,  get to be intimately familiar with ours, but, the greatest conductors have such a breadth of knowledge and a deep understanding and appreciation for so many subtleties of tempo, balance, and other issues, as well as a firm commitment to expressing the emotion and spirit of a given piece that they easily overcome the fact that they don't get to practice with their given instrument to the extent we get to.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on August 31, 2009 at 3:38 AM

I think conductor is so very important so that it is better to have none if we can’t get a good one that the orchestra deserves.  There are a few times I saw a conductor (I won’t say the name) just ruined the works by either talking to the audiance too much in a way downright silly if not condescending, or interpreting a piece in a odd and unconvincing way. As a member of the audience, I felt badly for the performers (many of them treat the music very seriously) who had to follow her silly directions and go through this.  But I voted for quality of musicians because normally we won't go to a concert if we know that quality won't be there.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 31, 2009 at 4:45 PM

Wow, what wonderful comments! I actually voted for "the conductor," because a good conductor can make that energy flow, even if the musicians aren't all stellar, and if the musicians are, then the result is just amazing. I'm really looking forward to seeing Dudamel with the LA Phil.

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on August 31, 2009 at 11:55 PM

Laurie - which of Dudamel's LA Phil concerts are you going to?  We'll all be expecting an in-depth review on!

From James Patterson
Posted on September 1, 2009 at 6:08 AM

Sometimes I find the main influence on my enjoyment of a concert is ME!  My feelings that day, my attitude, my level of fatigue or distraction.  Also, I am strongly influenced by the particular work being performed: if I already like it, the orchestra has to really mess it up terribly for it to reduce my pleasure.

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