It raises a number of issues without exploring them thoroughly but I was struck by the quotation from a violinist in the City of Birmingham SO. His perception of his role is to “Turn up, do the job safely and hope to get called back. A lot of that is just trying not to stick out.”
In these days of (relative) orchestral democracy each player has to satisfy their peers that they won't cause embarrassment, not only by technical deficiencies but by overenthusiastic indulgence in the music. This seems to represent a radical shift from the bad old days in which an autocratic conductor could have a player dismissed for lack of passionate involvement matching his own.
I'm wondering if a consequence of this is that although technical standards have risen remarkably, players in 21st century orchestras display a lesser degree of commitment than those of earlier decades, resulting in safer, more mundane performances.
"It was perfect. They played the Beethoven and Prokofiev just how it's supposed to be... all the instruments were balanced, everything was well thought out. It was also one of the most boring shows I've seen in a while."
Then we had a laugh. Make of that what you will.
Increasingly talented, trained and credentialed people fighting over just a few tiny spots. The level of playing of any particular member is probably the highest it has ever been. However, once you get in, there seems to be a higher rate of unionization than in our overall economy, but that still doesn't stop shenanigans, because the supply of players is always going to outstrip the demand, and the finances of a lot of orchestras are pretty tenuous.
Is this what drives some perceived uniformity in interpretation (which I think is a false premise)? What is the role of a conductor in such an atmosphere? Conductors would seem to have more raw resource at their disposal. I think orchestral musicians aren't straining against the idea of the conductor presenting a unified idea for how to play the music; that's part of the deal. I don't know if the thesis is that willful musicians need to be broken down a la Celibidache and remolded into the tools of the maestro because of their inherent stupidity; I would think that an intelligent conductor should be able to effectively communicate their vision and interpretation to any particular player without breaking a baton over their head.
I'm too young to have seen any of the romantic greats like Furtwangler, but my hunch is that tastes change, and it's not necessarily due to musicians being respected more. I still seem to enjoy plenty of concerts, and maybe my standards are too low (although given that I'm always writing critical reviews, I wouldn't have thought so).
I don’t think you can read something in the Guardian and apply it to orchestras outside of the UK.
Mary Ellen - the big London orchestras traditionally have drawn on a large population of freelancers. I'm not sure to what extent that has changed, but it was not so very long ago that one of the famous London orchestra somehow gave two simultaneous concerts in different locations, miles apart. The BBC Symphony Orchestra by contrast has a more permanent roster.
An insightful book on British orchestral life by a former CBSO percussionist is: Maggie Cotton 'Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument'.
Furtwangler, a 20th century giant with roots in the 19th, managed to work comfortably with European orchestras of all kinds: German, Austrian, Italian, and so on. He was very uncomfortable with the New York Philharmonic, however, partially because there was no single style of playing among its members. It was a diverse group of immigrants with an astounding array of national and political stances. Red and white Russians, pro-and anti-fascist Italians, Germans of all stripes, Jews, and so on. This was reflected to some degree in how they played and chose to cooperate. Or not.
The Boston Symphony was more reliably French (or Russian), and the Philadelphia Orchestra was trained by Stokowski and Ormandy to be a different beast altogether. But the NYPO Furtwangler declared to be "uncomfortably virtuosic."
Conductors themselves were much more isolated also. Toscanini was past 50 when he took La Scala on tour. Until then, much of Europe had no idea what kind of results he was getting in Milan. Arthur Nikisch was legendary, but many only heard rumors about his technique and his style. He left next to no recordings, less than a minute of silent film, and there were no radio broadcasts.
While very small operations - Trio's, Quartets, and other ensembles of less than 10 could be democratic and might benefit from the compromise required to make a democracy work.
From my life experience in Supply Chain Management where the organizations are larger is that democracy doesn't produce good results.
These organizations benefit from good management who listens, individually coaches, communicates, tracks goals. But, in the end there is a BOSS. The boss can be a supervisor, manager, director, conductor, section leader,... but the boss is, at the end of the discussions, coaching sessions, reviews,.. still THE BOSS! The people in the organization have to line up behind what the Boss wants and deliver the results required.
Even the small musical groups use "coaches" as an independent observer and provider of useful input.
Democracy is messy, inefficient, and great at general governance. But, trying to meet a deadline for a specific outcome requires a BOSS.
To be sure, the old school Conductors who scream, yell, holler, lash out,.. are no longer acceptable. Conductors need people-skills and authority in a balanced form. Just ask Lydia T'ar.
In my community orchestra, where I'm the CM, I often cue my section for entrances and the like, but as we progress toward the concert, I taper all of that off considerably because the conductor (also an amateur) by that time has figured out how to work in all those cues himself, so mine would be redundant or worse.
“Turn up, do the job safely and hope to get called back. A lot of that is just trying not to stick out.”
"In these days of (relative) orchestral democracy each player has to satisfy their peers."
It won't be the freelancer's peers who do the calling back.
My concern is also for the manner of performance which in comparison with previous decades I believe has at the same time become technically more secure and emotionally less involving for the audience. If demands aren't placed on the players through the agency of the conductor there will always be a tendency for them to "play safe".
In California, on the other hand, the LA Phil seems to have found a group of subscribers who don't mind hearing new and weird stuff. Younger Hollywood types and other media-savvy intellectuals. It would be interesting to compare their success with other orchestras' when it comes to selling premieres and 21c music. (Single ticket sales? Cancellations of subscriptions when too much challenging stuff is announced?)
The "bland lot" that dominates today? Hasn't it always been around, only we forget them? We remember the Toscaninis and the Furtwänglers and forget all the others, the "bland lot"?
I am not fond of having democracy mentioned as a negative in any context, these days more than ever. So here is another explanation for the growing uniformity in the business: In the old days chief conductors were typically in place for decades. Plus they conducted the vast majority of the performances. Musicians would know their conductor well and would know what he expected from them. This to me seems more conducive to "emotionally involving" performances than the hasty changes at the top and the large number of guest conductors coming and going, having to work with minimal rehearsal time. Conductors were also tyrants in the old days but that is only part of the story (anyhow conductors are still the sole decision makers on topics like tempo, balance, dynamic etc., democracy or no democracy).
About the tendency to "play safe". I think risk taking may be a component of creating emotional appeal but there is little room for it for orchestra musicians. Them taking risks is more likely to lead to disaster than to anything positive.
I haven't read the article, but I have seen the movie, because a local movie theater had invited our orchestra to it!
It might be a good movie, but - honestly - it is hard for me as a professional to thoroughly blend out all the nonsense it makes out of the music business, in order to really enjoy the film.
I guess this might be the same for FBI agents watching movies that display an image of how the FBI works. Might be a good ficitional story, and you just have to take the setting as a fictive environment where this and that might happen.
If you watch the movie: This is NOT how orchestras work, how they decide on who plays the solo, how peolpe get or lose their jobs. It is just a ficitional story.
I (tutti player) like this concept, because it is the most efficient one to get a great result. After all, you want the whole group to sound as one instrument, not as a chaotic mixture of individuals. If a conductor has no ideas, each player does what they like best - some play that ppp melody with an extra intense shivering vibrato, some feel the same spot more relaxed and use a warmer, wider vibrato, and some want the beauty of the very pure sound, and use no vibrato, at all. The result must be mediocre, although each player put in all their skills and emotions. It is as if everybody is allowed use their favorite color for painting the same wall (because nobody took a decision): The wall will become greyish brown. It is necessary to decide on one of these options, and I am glad that it is clear who does that, because we would have to practice for a month until we decided on all of that via democtratic discussion.
Concerning moving around while playing: I regard myself as a pretty emotional type of player. Still, I can decide if I play in order to lead someone else or a group (for me when I play chamber music, or when I have a little gig for some church concert where I am put in as concertmaster), or if I know that it is not me that has to lead. As a consequence, my movements are much smaller when I do my tutti job. It is neither less emotional, nor less inspired.
He also made sure that violinists with tight/fast vibrato were seated next to those with broader/slower vibrato.
Whatever else one might say about him, he did manage to get excellent results from most of the orchestras he conducted.
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I don't think that you can attribute either of those tendencies to levels of democracy in the ranks.