Tuesday, December 01, 2009

You Can't Step Into The Same Orchestra Twice

In the West, professional orchestras are the last survivors of a particularly archaic distribution of labor.* Their productive work continues to be done in a collective mass under strict hierarchical control and has benefit not in the least from any advances in technology or though more efficient means of personnel organization.  To the contrary, the very identity of the orchestra as such continues to be defined by promoters and consumers alike by its strength in numbers and the quality of the sound produced is very much dependent upon balances of forces designed in the 19th century in which the "chorus effect" of massed strings, in which all the tiniest differences among players ostensibly playing the "same" music are synthesized into a single stream, which is surprisingly distinct from the simple sum of its parts. 

One result of this archaic construction is that an orchestral performance, including all of the prerequisite rehearsals, is a preposterously expensive cultural commodity, one that in major industrialized countries cannot be produced without massive subsidies, whether private or public (or mixed, as in the case of tax breaks for private contributions).  The question of the "survival of the orchestra" as a civic institution largely depends upon how a community — or some elite subgroup of a community's leadership — values the product in relationship to its costs.  This construction often lends the orchestra an aura of prestige for these elites (and those who aspire to the elites) which is not unlike that associated with other valuable antiquarian artifacts, with the critical difference that the essential product of an orchestra is a performance, ephemeral and not concrete, so less marketable, even when commodified as audio recordings, and certainly not the object of meaningful financial speculation against future returns, for a music performance is a perishable good.

But what I really want to write about is the orchestra as an ephemeral institution and, consequently, as an ephemeral musical quality.  The personnel of an orchestra is entirely stable for only short periods of time, between the changes due to retirements and replacements, often to the practice of ringers and substitutions, and certainly due to the continuous and recombinant dynamics of a community, both within the orchestra itself, between sections (have you ever met a woodwind player really happy about sitting in front of the brass?) and within sections (what does it really mean, in terms of the psyche, to be second chair second fiddle?) and, especially, between the orchestra and its conductors.  The local radio orchestra, for example, under specialist guest conductors, plays brilliantly in late 20th and early 21st century repertoire, probably as well as any orchestra around, and the presence of the orchestra has certainly been one of the reasons for staying here in Frankfurt.  But under their principle conductor, in standard repertoire, they're a completely different and, I find, dispirited, band, one I listen to under increasing duress.  While, as an outsider, I can only guess at some of the dynamics involved — dynamics of contrasting musical styles (often following an east-west divide)  and personal demeanors — I do recognize that the personal chemistry involved is unimaginably complex (the three-body problem being famously unsolveable.)     


*I am well aware that there is a strong argument for the institution of the opera — above and beyond its orchestral subunit — as a more dramatic holdover from a long-gone economy of scale, but I believe that opera is a beast with some very different qualities, a theatrical spectacle that continues to have a social cachet rather different to that of the orchestra.


1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

Second chair second fiddle is a honored position for any violinist in any orchestra--at least in this day and age. Last chair second fiddle is a highly desirable position in an excellent orchestra.

When I was a wind player I always enjoyed sitting in front of the brass. I play in an orchestra where the horns are always seated behind the violas, and I find it particularly enjoyable (especially when the horn section is good).

I have played in an Asian orchestra, a few European orchestras, and several American orchestras, and have found, time and again, that the cultural divides that affect most people do not affect orchestral musicians. There is far more common ground than anyone could imagine, and these days stylistic differences, particularly among young people, are very often personal rather than cultural.