Are orchestras too democratic for the good of the music?

Edited: March 2, 2023, 7:47 AM · This article appeared in yesterday's Guardian

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.

Replies (27)

March 2, 2023, 8:18 AM · Ethics vary by orchestra, I think. At the Boston Symphony, you are discouraged from moving, since that implies that the guys behind you need some assistance. The Berlin Phil, however, looks like 100 quartet players all swaying around as they wish.

I don't think that you can attribute either of those tendencies to levels of democracy in the ranks.

Edited: March 2, 2023, 9:48 AM · Recently the Chicago symphony came to my town. My violin prof from university went out and saw them at Koerner hall and told me about it the next time we had a lesson together.

"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.

March 2, 2023, 11:15 AM · The orchestra seems to be a bit of a microcosm of our current economic trends:

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).

March 2, 2023, 5:12 PM · I think it’s important to note that British orchestras are run very differently from US orchestras. My understanding is that the musicians in the British orchestras are often basically freelancers who could be hired or not hired in the future. The rosters for professional orchestras in the US are set and musicians typically have tenure after two years of employment.

I don’t think you can read something in the Guardian and apply it to orchestras outside of the UK.

Edited: March 3, 2023, 1:23 AM · Steve, I read the Guardian article, which rather rambled. Surely there is nothing fundamentally wrong or cynical with an extra/substitute who 'Turn(s) up, do(es) the job safely and hope(s) to get called back,' but its context in the article suggested that this was a piece of cynicism. Similarly, the idea that the grand maestros of the past wanted players who would rival the maestros' egos was peculiar: they tended to impose their vision on their orchestras with an iron discipline that suppressed individuality.

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'.

Edited: March 3, 2023, 2:41 AM · Christian asks "What is the role of the conductor..? I'd suggest not only to shape the interpretation but to impose their personality and inspire the players to give the most of themselves technically and emotionally. The greatest/worst of the old autocrats would often generate electricity through fear but others achieved their aims by gaining respect. Today's conductors seem to be a pretty bland lot in comparison and usually get performances to match. The cause of this, I suggest, is our abhorrence of autocracy.
March 3, 2023, 2:46 AM · If interpretation seems to be more uniform, it has nothing to do with democratization. In fact, I don't even buy the assertion that interpretation has become more uniform at all. Thing is, we're living in an era in which every standard-repertoire orchestral piece has been recorded over and over and over. No matter how idiosyncratic someone's interpretation of a piece may be, it's probably already been done similarly (or at least similarly enough to invite comparison) in at least one of the hundreds of recordings of the piece, and thus it seems safer or more mundane than the exact same performance would have seemed half a century ago. The great mid-20th-century conductors had the luxury of being the first generation to make high-quality recordings of much of the standard repertoire, and thus create much of the listening public's first impressions.
Edited: March 3, 2023, 4:26 AM · To a large degree, conservatories once trained instrumentalists differently in various European capitals, and it was possible to learn the literature hearing nobody but French musicians, say, performing it. This led to a coherence among ensembles and definably different national schools, for better or worse.

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.

March 5, 2023, 1:35 PM · Professional Orchestras, Quartets, Ensembles,... are businesses that sell their artistic work.

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.

March 5, 2023, 2:49 PM · I have a hard time watching some of today's string quartets whose players are always gyrating and rising up out of their chairs and so forth. I think a lot of that is very artificial. If a whole orchestra was doing that, I think I would leave.

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.

March 5, 2023, 5:38 PM · The more uncomfortable the chair, the more I move. :-)
March 5, 2023, 5:42 PM · I bring my own chair. :)
March 5, 2023, 6:45 PM · I bring my own wedge cushion to raise my chair and soften the seat.
Edited: March 6, 2023, 6:58 AM · Some clips I've seen of the Berlin Phil suggest to me that the gyration of the string players is orchestrated! I like an orchestra to look "involved" but next they'll be marking their parts left- and right-sway as well as up- and down-bow.
March 7, 2023, 8:19 AM · Musicians in london are probably self-employed so their method of paying tax is different, but the players are basically fixed.
In the UK in general, members of other orchestras are employees. That's certainly true of my local orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra. Any freelance players are filling vacancies yet to be filled. I'm pretty sure the same is true for all other major orchestras outside London.
Edited: March 7, 2023, 10:58 AM · It's a British newspaper reporting on a Hollywood movie about a German orchestra, and there's direct democracy and representative democracy, and that's why I haven't got involved. If an orchestra elects a conductor, it's representative and they obey said conductor in the same way that they obey the president.

“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.

March 7, 2023, 10:14 AM · And yet, if a freelancer messes up enough, his/her peers will often make sure the word is passed.
Edited: March 7, 2023, 9:34 PM · For some reason, I don’t tend to associate conformity with creativity. As a creative endeavor, making music involves selecting, interpreting, and performing repertoire. For all those activities, would it not make sense for the orchestra and perhaps even the audience to have some influence on what repertoire is ultimately selected, prepared, and performed? Would a more inclusive process lead to a more inclusive end-product, something the orchestra and audience could embrace alike?

Edited: March 8, 2023, 10:47 AM · Raymond - surely what you're suggesting would lead to greater conformity rather than less? The audience already implicitly exerts considerable influence on repertoire, and the audience-pleasing tendency is always for less diversity and greater homogeneity. Similarly, to leave repertoire in the orchestra's democratic hands might result in more inclusiveness at the expense of exploration and innovation. We may not all like the consequences but I believe the choice of repertoire should be the prerogative of a few "creative" individuals.

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".

March 8, 2023, 4:53 AM · In NY, Boulez and Mitropoulos famously clashed with marketing folk about the new things they wanted to program. Bernstein did some meaningful exploration, but it wasn't necessarily popular. I don't have attendance statistics for that.

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?)

March 9, 2023, 3:56 PM · A few random thoughts:

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.

Edited: March 10, 2023, 4:57 AM · @Albrecht - somewhat like schoolchildren and footballers, orchestral players can be strongly motivated or left indifferent by the personality calling the shots. So yes, I agree that although some conductors can immediately command respect when they blow into town, their frequent absence is likely to result in a lack of musical understanding and a "play safe" approach from the team. And you're quite right that the musical good old days are probably mythical. 50 years ago during the Prom season the BBC orchestras shouldered 90% of the workload, say 6 concerts each week most of which fell to the BBCSO. The string players sometimes looked (and played) like they'd just got out of bed.
Edited: March 11, 2023, 3:39 AM · Hi,

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.

March 11, 2023, 4:36 AM · Here my two cents on democracy in orchestras: In Germany, it is a sort of democratic process how new members get in: They have to audition, and they have to get a majority of the votes of the section AND of the orchestra as a whole.
Concerning the music, however, it is not democratic, at all: The conductor does the interpretation and leaves space for individual interpretations only in nuances. Below the conducotor, there is the concertmaster and other pricipal players who decide on how to support the conductor's interpretation best (by deciding on bowings, for example). The tutti players have to be able to play accordingly, even if their personal choice of bowings might have been different.

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.

March 11, 2023, 6:14 AM · As a reminder, one democratic autocrat (Stokowski) made a fetish of free bowings, and would yell at people who didn't play freely enough.

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.

March 11, 2023, 6:33 AM · hi Emily, thanks, it's very interesting to hear your perspective!
March 13, 2023, 11:04 AM · Hi Stephen, what you describe about Stokowski, is the perfect example of how this mixed sound was used, willingly. So, it made sense.
Again, this was by decision of the conductor.
On the other hand, there are many mediocre conductors around who have only some very blurry concept of interpretation and just let the players play, randomly.
Whenever the conductor knows what they want, exactly, and is able to communicate this, then every player will enjoy playing as told, even if that might include free bowings or whatever.
The result will always be better if you can follow one interpretation of the music, than in the case of basically having no overall interpretation, at all.
I as a tutti player don’t busy myself too much with active interpretation of orchestral music. If that was my main interest, I would start conducting. I put all my interpretational creativity into chamber music or solo repertoire. This is not my everyday job, but I enjoy that very much, every once in a while.

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