“There is a point in the perfection of artistic skills beyond which further progress is without artistic value,” composer and critic Virgil Thomson once wrote. “The surface becomes so shiny that nothing else can be perceived.”
I have sometimes gotten this sense myself at concerts by major orchestras. The quality of the playing is so creamy and perfect it’s like you’re listening to a CD performed live, right before your very eyes. It’s all so flawless that it no longer seems connected with humanity. And thus it ends up canceling out its own desired end. To paraphrase former Chicago Symphony president Henry Fogel, “your feet never leave the ground.”
I remember attending a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by an undergraduate ensemble several months after hearing a pro orchestra performance. Guess which one was more compelling?
That’s an illustration of extremes; obviously there are a lot of touch points between full-time pros and student undergrads. But the American orchestra industry—steeped in what Thomson called the “cult of orchestral precision”—has long regarded artistic excellence as its sine qua non.
20 years ago, Norman Lebrecht published The Maestro Myth, which took on the industry’s tendency to virtually deify the conductor. The book’s point was not that conductors aren’t important, but simply that “the era of the megalomaniac conductor waving his baton like Voldemort’s wand at an orchestra of powerless musicians” was at an end.
But there is another fable that is even more persistent: the major orchestra myth—the worldview in which only full-time, salaried ensembles can turn out artistically profound performances.
In Tacoma, we know better.
The TSO is what the industry calls a “per-service” orchestra, employing professional musicians who are paid by the rehearsal and concert on a fixed scale. It has built a reputation for artistically satisfying performances that often reach the level of transcendence. This is especially so since the advent of new Music Director Sarah Ioannides, who has taken Tacoma by storm since her arrival in October, with sold-out concerts and a new level of community engagement and visibility. At the recent Beethoven & Tchaikovsky concert, the audience’s feet didn’t just leave the ground. We left the theater floating like Michael Keaton inBirdman.
Meanwhile, the full-time Atlanta Symphony is the latest in a series of major orchestras in financial crisis due to the breakdown of its business model. The group has operated at a loss for years, racking up deficits that are no longer sustainable. A tense and controversial collective bargaining session, concluded recently, resulted in the reduction of its full-time ranks from 94 to 77 players – a small complement by national standards.
Although the new contract is undoubtedly a step in the direction of financial sustainability, many fear it may spell the end of the ASO as a “world-class” orchestra.
At issue is the fact that many classical, Romantic and contemporary works require larger instrumentation than the ASO’s new full-time roster, necessitating the frequent use of extra musicians to round out the forces. The core players—so the argument goes—know the hall, the conductor, and each other inside and out, and with that familiarity comes a level of nuance that will be compromised by the influx of outsiders.
As Michael Cooper wrote in a recent New York Times column, “musicians warn that an overreliance on freelancers endangers the things that make orchestras great: the cohesion that comes from playing together over many years, the performing traditions that are developed and passed down, even the ability to divine in a flash what a familiar conductor is seeking with a cocked eyebrow or a flick of the wrist.”
All this may be true. Undoubtedly the sound of these orchestras is going to change. If the definition of a “great” performance is one in which the seams are never revealed, in which the color is airbrushed onto the canvas with nary a visible stroke, no doubt the advent of freelancers will have an effect. But it begs the question: is that really what makes a performance “great?”
Even back in the 1940s, Virgil Thomson called the Boston Symphony “overtrained,” its concerts displays of “executional hypertrophy.” As a result, the performances were less about the music than about “how beautifully the Boston Symphony Orchestra can play.”
The phenomenon has only gotten more widespread since then.
This doesn’t mean that artistic excellence doesn’t matter, or that orchestras shouldn’t try to play in top form. Of course it does, and of course they should.
But when the incorporation of freelance musicians into a full-time ensemble is cast as a fate worse than death, and when musicians at the majors are willing to drive their orchestras over a financial cliff rather than submit to it—that’s not “great,” that’s pathological.
I’ll make a further point. I think the orchestra world’s obsession with being “great” is grandiose and uninviting. It has become a turn-off and a barrier to many, including the younger audiences we all covet.
I suspect that those who grew up listening to rock and jazz prefer to take their music with a little less “great” and a little more “grit.” They’re looking for passion and energy, not necessarily perfection. Some of the seminal jazz recordings of yesteryear are full of technical flaws. As for rock in its infancy, it was raw, naive, and calamitously unsteady.
I suggest that we scrape off some of the shine on our surface, play with more daring, even risk a little occasional unpolish. Perhaps the brush strokes are part of what makes the canvas compelling, if not “great.”
Maybe that’s exactly what will happen at major orchestras as they incorporate freelance musicians into their ranks, effectively changing from closed to open systems, with graduated boundaries. And maybe it will be just what Dr. Thomson ordered.
I suggest that it won’t be the contaminating influence they fear—and may even add spice and seasoning to their sound. Maybe the ASO and orchestras like it will find that, by sacrificing a little ensemble cohesion, they’ve gained immediacy and impact.