A symphony suitable for casual community orchestra?

May 1, 2017 at 08:00 PM · I play in what Lydia would call a "casual" community orchestra (see Lydia's interesting taxonomy of community orchestras in her post dated September 26, 2016 at 02:59 PM in the thread on community orchestras).

Here are some of the pieces we have played over the past years. We can play these pieces in tune and with reasonable sound but often we play them a bit slower than they should be played.

Schubert unfinished symphony

Schubert 5th symphony only 1st and 2nd part

Bizet Carmen Suite

Orff Carmina Burana

Debussy Petite Suite (Büsser orchestration)

Beethoven Egmont ouverture

Dvorak Slavonic Dances op.46 (the four easiest ones :-)

Mozart Symphony no.38

Mozart Magic Flute ouverture

Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite (without ouverture!)

Tchaikovsky Swan Lake Suite

Tchaikovsky Romeo&Juliet Fantasy Ouverture

Nielsen Aladdin Suite

You get the idea! Now I would love to propose us to play a full symphony, so far Mozart 38 was the only one we did so far. But...we are not that good! We all duly practice our parts, but there are clear limits to our technical ability, and we don't want to perform something that we can't make sound good! What I mean is that symphonies at the level of Dvorak New World, Tchaikovsky Pathetique, Beethoven 5, Mendelssohn Italian, are obviously out for purely technical reasons. It is typically the final part of such symphonies that would kill us.

Also, very important, our wind players want to play some of the melodies, so it cannot be one of these symphonies where virtually all the melody is continually in the strings and the winds are just there to color things up or play a forte note here and there! For example they did not like Mozart 38 for that reason.

Is there a full symphony you would consider recommending us to look at?

Many thanks in advance!

Replies (22)

May 1, 2017 at 11:27 PM · Bizet Symphony 1 in C

JC Bach Sinfonia in B flat major

May 1, 2017 at 11:30 PM · none of the above.

May 1, 2017 at 11:53 PM · Beethoven 5 isn't that technical. Beethoven 1 isn't that bad either. One of my favorite symphonies is Haydn's 104th symphony. That one is fun to play. There are not many easy symphonies. I'd say Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and perhaps Mendelssohn would be the easiest.

May 1, 2017 at 11:59 PM · I also need some help with orchestral rep. My orchestra teacher allows students to recommend pieces to play. We play our hardest music during contest. Last year we played the 1st and 4th movement of Beethoven 1, and this year we did Schubert's 8th (1st) and Schubert's 9th (3rd). We also did the 1st mvt of Mendelssohn's string symphony no. 2. My teacher said he wants to stay around the level of the Schubert and Beethoven and not go too much higher. http://www.issma.net/downloads/seniororch1617.pdf This is a list of all the choices. We do group 1 pieces. We play a string piece and 2 full orchestra pieces.

May 2, 2017 at 12:56 AM · Haydn is not the worst idea. 104 was my personal worst concert I can think of during school, my pegs ran loose several times....

I think we called it poor mans Beethoven 5th these days ,its totally different music though.

May 2, 2017 at 02:29 AM · Avoid all Mozart symphonies (they are much harder to play well than you might think) and definitely do not play Bizet Symphony #1; that is a very difficult piece for a community orchestra!

New World Symphony (Dvorak)is actually the first piece that came to my mind. It's very playable. Dvorak 7 is also not too bad. Tchaikovsky 5 is easier than 4 or 6. Oh, and the Franck Symphony in d minor--personally I don't like that piece but our local youth orchestra played it this year. Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Espagnole if you have a good concertmaster. Tchaikovsky Marche Slav.

I would not have suggested that a community orchestra attempt the Magic Flute overture. That sometimes shows up on 2nd violin audition lists. Not really community-orchestra friendly. Egmont is difficult, too.

May 2, 2017 at 03:31 AM · Mary Ellen, you know much more about the repertoire than me. My precollege orchestra is playing Bizet 1 right now, and I thought it would fit the OP's requests. Is it really that much harder than New World? I guess I see your logic if you think it requires the purity that Mozart does.

May 2, 2017 at 04:02 AM · Look at the repertoire that youth symphonies do.

Some of the Rossini overtures are doable -- Barber of Seville, William Tell, etc.

If you can manage those Tchaikovsky works, then Tchaikovsky 2 and 5 are probably doable. Beethoven 1. Maybe Brahms 1. Possibly Sibelius 2 and 7.

May 2, 2017 at 11:38 AM · IMO Bizet #1 is much harder than New World for exactly the reason Helen suggests.

My daughter plays flute in the #2 youth orchestra here and they're playing Russian Easter Overture, which I also remember playing in youth orchestra.

My high school orchestra, which was at nowhere near the level of my youth orchestra, did a Haydn symphony movement (can't remember which one) and the Strauss Emperor Waltz. I don't really recommend Strauss waltzes unless you have a very tolerant second violin and viola section.

May 2, 2017 at 07:41 PM · When I was a kid our youth symphony did Dvorak New World, Dvorak 7, Tchaik 5, Capriccio Espagnole, Prokofiev 5, Magic Flute, Marriage of Figaro, Meistersingers, Egmont, Beethoven 5, and Schubert Unfinished, to name several. Looking back on it, none of these are terribly hard (and we weren't very good, it only being a mid-sized city), but you do need first violinists that aren't just in first, third, and emergency position to play them.

Oh, and we did the Emperor Waltz too. I played second that year, so I can testify that you do need people willing to boom-chuck-chuck. Pizzicato Polka too.

We never did Haydn, but if those aren't too hard they are musically fantastic and a nice change from the list I provided above.

May 2, 2017 at 08:12 PM · Jacob's list looks useful. I have seen graded repertoire lists for chamber music, it would be great to have some experienced pros grade these lists too. It looks like Jacob's list is divided into three "groups". What are those groups? Are they difficulty levels? And if so, in what order?

May 2, 2017 at 09:21 PM · I believe they are different levels. Group 1 is the highest and they go down in difficulty from there.

May 2, 2017 at 09:22 PM · It was interesting reading your list and comparing it with what our amateur orchestra has tried (and struggled with). (Irreverent side note: If you played just the first two movements of Schubert's 5th symphony, does that make it unfinished too?)

Bizet's Carmen Suite is indeed fun and quite doable. (You have played both of them, haven't you?) If you want to try more Bizet, L'Arlésienne Suites (again, both of them) are good picks.

The only Beethoven we've tried was the Egmont, but we didn't quite have what it takes to make it really pop.

> Dvorak Slavonic Dances op.46 (the four easiest ones :-)

We played all 8, but it stretched us pretty much to the limit. I'd like to play opus 72 sometime - number 2 is so beautiful.

We had a bright young violinist with whom we tackled the first movement of Mozart's violin concerto no. 4, and we've done his bassoon concerto as well. What was that old saying? Oh, yes... Mozart is too easy for beginners and too hard for advanced players. I guess those of us in the middle just sort of flounder along.

> Tchaikovsky Romeo&Juliet Fantasy Ouverture

Mmm, yes. We did not too bad a job of that one. We've also played bits and pieces of Eugene Onegin at a couple of concerts. We're currently working on his Pezzo Capriccioso - it's a challenge for the solo cellist, but ours is up to the task.

> Nielsen Aladdin Suite

I heard that one a while ago, and it made me realize I'll have to look more into Nielsen's material. Maybe that'd be fun to have a run at.

We did not a bad job with William Tell, but it took every cello we could scrape up - there are 5 separate cello parts! If you'd like a bit more Rossini, try the overture to Semiramide.

We like to throw in pieces that the audience will recognize, and have done a number of pieces by Albert Ketèlbey and Leroy Anderson, and enough Strauss and Lehár to make our violists' arms fall off.

As for full symphonies (ah yes, that's what we were talking about, wasn't it?) I once attended what was called an "orchestra jam". Parts for various pieces were e-mailed out to anyone interested, and one afternoon we all sat down and took a single run at everything. Much fun, and we did a pretty good job of Dvorák 8.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Antar has been considered his second symphony, even though he later called it a symphonic suite. We did it passably well, along with Sadko. (And before you ask, no, we haven't had the courage to tackle Scheherazade.)

Ballet suites are also fun. We've done Shostakovich no. 1, and we're currently working on Gounod's Faust. And while not exactly ballet, Grieg's Peer Gynt suites are good too. One audience loved it so much that we played Hall of the Mountain King again as an encore, and they went nuts a second time.

Hope these ramblings are of some help. There's lots of fun music out there.

May 2, 2017 at 09:40 PM · Mary Ellen.

"I don't really recommend Strauss waltzes unless you have a very tolerant second violin and viola section." so true. we just played our pops concert including about 9 waltzes and polkas. We Seconds are not so happy about that. I'm still recovering. lol

Maybe that makes up for the Borodin Steppes which is so hated by the First violins. But it's a beautiful piece. I think we're between casual and serious. We just finished some concerts with Dance Macabre, Peter and the wolf, Dvorak 8 or 9, Borodin 2 Mendelssohn's 5th symphony, Bruch , Scheherazade,Grieg symphonic Dances, Bizet Arlesienne suite is beautiful. Elgar and schumann cello concertos. Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.

lohengren, Nimrod. The Hungarian Dances are doable.

May 2, 2017 at 09:41 PM · Jean, et al.,

As one who played for many decades in what could easily be called a "Casual Community Orchestra", I learned that there is a fine line between stretching and frustration.

How often does this orchestra perform? How frequently and regularly do you rehearse? What percent of the musicians participate in at least 80% of all scheduled rehearsals?

My orchestra performed twice a year with weekly rehearsals that were well attended with most musicians there every week and they did work on the music in between rehearsals. This allowed us to do more stretch work as long as we took each piece in small bites.

Only the leaders of the orchestra were considered "professional" the rest of us were students at various levels of development. We understood that and used the orchestra to develop our skills.

You could play anything on your list but, the issues of frequency of performance, attendance at rehearsals will define where the music chosen crosses the line from stretch to frustration.

FWIW: There is a community orchestra nearby where I live that I will not play. They schedule six concerts a year, the conductor is a Beethoven fan, only about 60% of the musicians make all rehearsals, and the turnover is pretty high for all instruments. Their advertisements promise a lot, their performances don't deliver. Finally, I have heard that their conductor is a screamer.

May 2, 2017 at 10:29 PM · George's point about rehearsal schedules and attendance is very important. So too is the familiarity of the music. A lot of community orchestras have older players who have done the common classics N times, and consequently just need to remember their parts, not learn them fresh. And repertoire that's familiar to the ear is more easily learned than more obscure repertoire -- players know where they fit into the ensemble because they've heard the piece a bazillion times and know how it's supposed to go.

Rehearsal efficiency is a big deal, too. Some conductors can meticulously teach a more difficult piece to not-great players. Some have a clarity that tightens up ensemble and makes players instinctively do the right thing. Some are depressingly ineffectual or simply don't use rehearsal time efficiently.

And there are pieces that are very hard to do cleanly, but which you can slop through and they may still sound nice. You are more likely to get away with technically-sloppy Romantic music than Classical-era compositions.

May 2, 2017 at 11:42 PM · I love Strauss waltzes, but with as many rehearsals as community orchestras have for a performance, I can see why they would be unbearable for the seconds and violas.

May 3, 2017 at 11:27 AM · Many thanks for all the reactions! Our orchestra fits well with George's description of his orchestra.

Actually thrilled to hear from Mary Ellen that Dvorak's New World Symphony may be playable! I was aware that many youth orchestras play this. But I have a lot of respect for such a symphony (referring to George's description of the second orchestra.)

to Jacob: you say Beethoven 5 is not so technical, but I believe it is really difficult for the cello's, or isn't it?

to Kit: Borodin 2 and Mendelssohn 5 are two titles that were already on our horizon. What was the concrete experience of your orchestra with them? (And, what is the quality of your orchestra, perhaps you guys are really good?) Mendelssohn needs to be clean, I think the last part of that 5th symphony would kill us. Borodin is perhaps, as Lydia says, more lenient to slopping through? Would be interested to hear about your experience.

May 3, 2017 at 03:02 PM · I've never gotten a chance to play the entirety of Mendelssohn 5. When I was a high schooler, my public-school orchestra did the second movement (the fast movement), though. We were able to play it well, and it was fun.

I have done both Mendelssohn 3 and 4 in community orchestras. My recollection is that for strings, 3 is easier than 4, though not by any significant margin. The difficulty of 4 can probably be decreased by taking less aggressive tempos.

Beethoven 5 is doable by mediocre high schoolers (my public high-school orchestra performed it, and my fantastic youth symphony practically sight-read it for a shopping-mall performance), and certainly by a casual community orchestra. You might be hugely self-critical about what it sounds like, but to the average audience it will sound like Beethoven 5 and they'll love it.

I would add that programming makes a big difference. My current orchestra (which I'd classify as casual) tends to play programs that are relatively short (call it at least 60 but definitely not as much as 90 minutes), with works of mixed difficulty and familiarity. So there might be something that needs next to no rehearsal, something that might need significant technical woodshedding but isn't a big ensemble headache, and something that will be more difficult to put together.

May 3, 2017 at 06:15 PM · I agree with Lydia about programming. For a casual community orchestra a 75-minute concert seems about right. I think it's also a good move to have a local young person play a solo piece even if it's not a whole concerto.

May 4, 2017 at 10:57 AM · Lydia, about sight-reading Beethoven 5, I can more or less see that happening for the first movement, do you think the entire Beethoven 5 is on the "mediocre" level? The last parts seem really tricky to me!

May 4, 2017 at 01:43 PM · The last movement might actually be the most doable for a less-skilled group, as long as the tempo chosen is on the moderate side of the typical tempo range.

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