alan little’s weblog

sandow on cynicism

29th November 2005 permanent link

Greg Sandow has a book in progress about the decline of classical music, especially orchestral classical music, and what if anything can or should be done about it. One of the problems he puts his finger on is a lack of any passion, any unpredictability in yet another run-through of something like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – fine piece of music though it is.

I wrote to him pointing out a couple of counter-examples:

I'm following your online book with great interest, and was struck by your comments about the musicians' (orchestral musicians at any rate) lack of involvement in what they're playing.

My brother is a freelance orchestral string player, and your book isn't going to tell me anything I haven't already heard from him about disillusionment in the orchestral music business. Mostly. But once he got me tickets to hear him playing Mahler in the Liverpool Philharmonic. It turned out to be the day Michael Tippett died; they didn't have anything by him rehearsed, so instead they added Elgar's Nimrod to the program because apparently he loved it. It was an absolutely glorious, performance-of-the-century moment. When my brother met us in the bar afterwards he was glowing, and wanted to know immediately if that had sounded anywhere near as good as it felt. We told him it had.

So here you have a decent but not great orchestra, and a totally overexposed piece of music that any English orchestral musician has performed a thousand times and could play in their sleep. Surely a recipe for tedium. But, given a reason to play it that they care about - plenty of them had probably met Tippett - and an audience to whom it has been explained that this is what we are playing and this is why we are playing it, it turned into a moment of absolutely transcendent wonder. Art, even. I will remember it all my life.

Another example: last year I went to hear a local amateur orchestra perform the Eroica at a charity concert. It was great fun. They had hired a professional conductor, and he and they were clearly determined that they were damn well going to *perform* the thing, not just get through the score without falling apart. They damn near did fall apart, but I admired them and enjoyed the concert far more for that than if they had played it safe. The Eroica is so great it can survive a lot of abuse, and nobody was expecting them to be the Vienna Philharmonic. (On the other hand, what does it do to the Vienna Philharmonic, knowing that everybody *is* expecting them to be the Vienna Philharmonic? Does the pressure of all that expectation to be perfect stop them taking enough risks?)

Of course, for members of that amateur orchestra, this might have been the only chance of their lives to be in a public performance of one of the greatest pieces of orchestral music ever written – and in front of an audience that probably contained large numbers of their friends, relatives and colleagues. Whereas an orchestral professional might acknowledge in an abstract sense how great and wonderful the Eroica is – but how big a deal is any given performance of it?

Another example occurs to me: Arild Remmereit’s amazing Tchaikovsky performance with the Munich Philharmonic that I heard last winter. The band might have thought they were up for just another run through of a too-familiar piece they’ve played a hundred times before – but for the conductor it was his chance to make a splash with a big-name orchestra, and by god he did.

I’m not saying – and nor is Greg, I assume – that it’s all cynicism, all the time with professional orchestras. I used to vaguely know the lead trumpet of the BBC Philharmonic (friend of a friend), and he would get excited and go around drumming up support in the pub whenever they had a big brass showpiece like Mussorgsky’s Pictures or Beethoven’s Fifth coming up. My brother, too, waxes lyrical about the times when he’s been involved in great performances like that Elgar, or when he has heard really great orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic.

While we’re on the subject of music that is heard and played too often, don’t forget to go and read Brian Micklethwait’s magnificent piece on the Eroica:

It is one thing to hear the first two chords of the Eroica for the hundredth time, in an age of stadium rock and hi-fi volume knobs on our CD players; quite another to hear these two explosions when they were the loudest and most bad-mannered musical noises that anyone had, until then, ever heard indoors.

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