Technical ranking of orchestral repertoire

January 26, 2019, 11:45 PM · Technical ranking of orchestral repertoire

While there are many technical rankings of solo literature, I wonder if there are technical rankings of orchestral repertoire (for, let’s say, violins) out there. Many community orchestras conductors/music directors could, I believe, greatly benefit from these type of rankings.

A related question. How often do conductors ( who are not string players ) in community orchestras consult with the concertmaster in music selections ?

Replies (24)

January 27, 2019, 6:27 AM · Define "easy" or "hard".
For whom? Strings? Woodwind? Brass?.
Technically or musically?
I've just been booked for Haydn Creation. Is that easy or hard?
There's good and bad playing, which is a lot more than just getting the notes. There's phrasing, sound etc.
And yes. Any good conductor takes advice from the Concertmaster (Leader) in repertoire selection.
Take any Mozart symphony. Easy technically. Very few play it well
Playing the notes is just the starting point.
January 27, 2019, 8:22 AM · One way to research this would be to search for high school orchestra programs and see what they play. High school orchestras can vary widely, but one could say it's an "intermediate" level.
January 27, 2019, 9:06 AM · Thing is, pros can breeze through easy stuff and high schoolers can still butcher advanced music, so looking at programmes doesn't tell you much.

Just listen to the music and decide for yourself.

Edited: January 27, 2019, 10:29 AM · has a ranking of solo, orchestral, and piano concerto repertoire, however it is based in the technical perspective of the violin part. It’s under the Graded Repertoire section. I hope it can help you out in some way.
Edited: January 27, 2019, 2:45 PM · I don’t think ranks orchestral repertoire. Its category “violin and orchestra” ranks solo literature to be played with an orchestra (e.g. concertos); its “violin solo” category ranks unaccompanied literature (eg solo Bach).
January 27, 2019, 11:54 AM · The technical difficulty of the 1st violin orchestra parts approximately follows the historical dates of the composers; there is a gradual increase of difficulty with time. With many exceptions; Bach orchestra parts more difficult than Handel or Vivaldi. Mozart is deceiving; the literal technique is lower than Haydn or Beethoven, but a higher technical control, quality, is required for a good performance. Weber is harder then Mendelssohn. Dvorak-Brahms-Tchaikovsky about the same. There is a reason why Richard Strauss appears on pro. orchestra audition lists. After R. Strauss it gets messy, there is a wider range of difficulty. Prokofiev, Shostokovitch, Hindemith, can be max. difficulty. Conductors of low budget orchestras should definitely consult with their section leaders when planning season programs.
Edited: January 27, 2019, 12:09 PM · Joel that's true in general, but wouldn't it be nice to have a handy list of exceptions? For example there's plenty of classical rep that's harder than "Serenade for Strings" by Suk (or Elgar), Prokofiev Classical Symphony is easier than Brahms, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is easier than the Vivaldi Four Seasons, or the Brandenburg Concertos, etc. And then there are the slow movements (e.g., Barber Adagio) which are often performed as standalone pieces.

Maybe David Zhang could tell us what level he's really looking for and we could recommend individual pieces.

January 27, 2019, 12:13 PM · Joe, the dilemma is that most music before Mozart and Hayden has little to offer to winds and brass. To have everyone playing, one needs to select music from the late classical (say Brahms) period to modern.
Edited: January 27, 2019, 12:18 PM · Paul, we are looking for something that everyone (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussions) has interesting parts and can play well : )
January 27, 2019, 1:56 PM · And if it's a community orchestra, brass and woodwind parts that can override the upper strings when required ;)
January 27, 2019, 2:10 PM · I wouldn't say Prokofiev's Classical Symphony is any easier than Brahms. It's one of those pieces that I'd call deceptively difficult.

One exception to the trend that I'd like to mention: there's a lot of music by English composers in the first half of the 20th century that is of similar difficulty to Mendelssohn.

There's just so much orchestral rep out there that I don't know if anyone has gone through it all and evaluated it for difficulty. One possible answer is to go through past community orchestra programs in an area where you know the local hierarchy of community orchestras.

Edited: January 27, 2019, 2:28 PM · David Zhang, re your question about non-string playing conductors of community orchestras. We have one such in one of my symphony orchestras. A young man (30-ish) who is a professional horn player and pianist. Notably, a couple of seasons ago he successfully stood in at very short notice for an absent soloist in a Mozart piano concerto - but drew the line at directing from the piano and got a friend to do the honours on the podium.

When he took over as our new conductor about 5 years ago he was aware of his lack of knowledge of the details of string playing and made it his business to spend the coffee breaks in getting advice from the CM (a retired pro), and sometimes the principal cellist (a teaching pro), about the fine details of bowing and fingering. He also attends masterclasses in conducting and is now teaching conducting as well as piano and horn. The upshot of all this is that we now feel very comfortable and in good hands under his baton, and take his advice on bowing seriously.

Oh, and he also conducts choirs, so evidently knows all about herding cats :)

Edited: January 27, 2019, 2:26 PM · I absolutely do not agree that Prokofiev's Classical Symphony is easier than Brahms; quite the contrary. There's a reason why it shows up frequently on professional orchestra audition lists.

I would suggest looking to see what pieces are frequently performed by youth orchestras. A few that come to mind are Holst's Planets, Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphoses, Brahms 1 and 2 (but perhaps not 4), Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Espagnole or Scheherezade, Moussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain or Pictures at an Exhibition, Smetana Moldau (you need a really good 2nd flute for that one), etc. A good community orchestra could probably play Mahler 1 but not Mahler 7 or 9.

Mozart symphonies are really hard to play well, and not coincidentally frequently appear on professional auditions.

Edited: January 27, 2019, 2:31 PM · One other thought: sometimes difficulty of string parts can vary widely within a piece, which can lead to nasty surprises if the conductor doesn't check with section leaders in advance. For four years I was principal violist of a lower-level casual community orchestra; at first the conductor (who was a horn player) consulted with me along with other principal string players on the difficulty of string parts. At some point, though, he stopped including me in those emails as the orchestra picked up surprisingly strong violists. I think he assumed the viola section could play anything he programmed, because for one season the five best string players in the orchestra were the concertmaster and the four violists. And then that season he programmed Hamish MacCunn's overture "The Land of the Mountain and the Flood," where the violin parts are of intermediate difficulty while the viola part is full of Moldau-like running 16th notes in constantly shifting chords with lots of double-sharps. (It would have been much easier to play the 2nd violin part on viola than to play the viola part.) It was a more difficult viola part than anything my semi-pro orchestra was rehearsing at the time. So, unfortunately, if you looked at the programs of community orchestras in my area, you would have seen one piece that was absolutely unsuitable for most community orchestras at that level.

At least that conductor had the good sense not to program Mozart -- ever. I think he was well aware that it would have sounded terrible.

January 27, 2019, 3:52 PM · Mary Ellen, Thanks for suggestions. Andrew, the suggestion on English composers is spot on—we have done some stuff by Elgar and V. Williams.
January 27, 2019, 4:52 PM · Mary Ellen, yes I still have memories of Mozart 39 at an audition. That horrible bit in the slow movement, an then the opening of the last movement. Much to everyone's surprise (especially mine) I got it absolutely clean. And was asked to do it again.
Didn't get the job, but at least I got a trial out of it
January 27, 2019, 5:02 PM · Yes, the Prokofiev Classical Symphony has several passages that are audition standards. They are quite difficult, but they do at least have the advantage of being tuneful (unlike many other excerpts, such as my personal nemesis, the Schumann Scherzo).
January 27, 2019, 6:45 PM · Most conductors can look at a score and estimate difficulty even if they're not string players. I've seen conductors underestimate the amount of practice time needed for tough string parts, though.

My orchestra does read-throughs of most of a season's proposed repertoire during our summer break from sets. Repertoire does sometimes get altered as a result of that.

Edited: January 27, 2019, 9:28 PM · For the second question: I have never heard of a conductor consulting with members of the orchestra about repertoire, except maybe for really new contemporary pieces. YMMV though, especially as I don't have much experience with community orchestras.
January 27, 2019, 10:43 PM · Most conductors make a point of ignoring repertoire suggestions from the orchestra.
January 27, 2019, 11:59 PM · It very much depends on the community orchestra. In my current community orchestra, we have a voting process for repertoire, and that process has evolved over time (for instance, being more board-centric to being more player and audience-centric).
Edited: January 28, 2019, 4:18 AM · It varies greatly in my experience too.

The only orchestra where I've really ever been consulted at all is the casual community orchestra I mentioned above, where most musicians were lower-intermediate level. The consultation was essentially an e-mail reading something like "Please look over the score and let me know if your part is too difficult for your section."

In my current mid-level community orchestra, we do basically the same thing Lydia's orchestra does: an optional strings-only reading rehearsal 2-3 weeks before our first real rehearsal of the season, with season programming sometimes changing as a result.

In my semi-pro orchestra, there is no consultation about programming. However, our conductor mass-emails the permanent members of the orchestra every December asking for programming ideas, and asks us to suggest up to two pieces each. In every season he's programmed except the current one, he's included at least one piece suggested by an orchestra member. He took both of mine (Lyadov's "Baba-Yaga" and "The Enchanted Lake") in 2014-15. But this I'd entirely at his own discretion and I wouldn't really call it consultation.

January 28, 2019, 6:31 AM · @David Zhang





dear David,i showed these links to my string coach before posting them here.he had his disagreements about some of the mentioned pieces in their grades but i think you're looking for such lists.hope it helps.

Edited: January 28, 2019, 9:03 AM · I think in community/adult orchestras it can often come down to cost. Things like:

Are we going to have to pay for lots of extra players?
Is our usual venue big enough or do we need to pay more for a bigger venue?
Is the piece in copywright?
Is the piece in our orchestral library?

For example opera and film music concerts will cost more to put on than a typical programme.

Here in the UK we don't do read throughs in advance, we simply have several (usually anywehre from 4-7) weekly rehearsals per programme + 1 on the day as well. If there is a piece I have never played before I often don't see the part until the first rehearsal. I do try and listen to it in advance wherever possible.

I have a rough idea of which composers tend to hve the trickiest pieces to play, For instance I know Elgar will nearly always be easier to play than R.Strauss.

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