Retrospective 1: The Perception of Orchestral Performances

Related to my last post, an old friend of mine said on Facebook

While I have enjoyed reading them, there is a tenor in your posts that doesn't quite resonate with me as a fellow musician. I respect the authority and learned nature of your analyses, but the over-arching, general conclusions you come to don't accurately reflect my own experiences. Of course, I understand that one must generate their own conclusions mostly derived from their own experiences, but I felt compelled to write you that my conclusions of the state of western/classical music is not the same as yours, probably because my experiences have most likely been different than yours. Your opinions on the role of new music in comparison with the standard repertoire, how symphony models should function given their challenges, and defining what those challenges actually are differ from my own. I just wanted to write to you that all the ailments you feel the current model(s) have, remember the sample size is probably larger than one initially realizes. What happens in one city, in one orchestra, in one country, doesn't necessarily provide an ample basis to summarize the status of all models.

And, on this, I 100% agreed with him. If more than 100% were possible, I'd be that. The generalization of an entire model based on one, or even a few orchestras in cities in a single country is not enough to generalize about all of music.

I also have a very specific viewpoint on orchestral music and performance, from why I don't write symphonies, to why I enjoy certain performances over other performances.

What I thought I'd do for a few blog posts is start looking into some of the "whys." I asked "why" so many composers and young musicians jumped all over John Adams. Now it's time to ask why in regards to my own thought processes.

First off, why am I putting this on the internet and not just in a journal under my bed? Because I, foolishly perhaps, believe that my words can have an effect on the world--especially the immediate world that surrounds me. People I know, people I interact with, and, to a lesser extent, "friends of friends." Perhaps my own views are mirrored in others, and this process will help others. Or, perhaps, but offering a better understanding of my viewpoints, those with differing views can begin to see where I'm coming from.

So, let's begin with the post that began this process--my perception about orchestral performance. Let's think of sample size first and put in a few conditionals. Condition 1: Recordings don't count. Going to a concert, playing in a concert, and listening to a recording all different activities. Recordings are a medium change, and therefore reference an event. This causes a loss of "energy," if you will. This is like in an internal combustion engine, when gas, oxygen, and spark collide, potential energy of the gas and oxygen mix is released as kinetic energy. This change of form causes a loss of energy, in this case as heat. It's not a perfect system.

I've talked about all this before, a long time ago.

The next thing to examine is I'm going to ignore times when I was in the orchestra. This takes out a fairly significant amount of my time around orchestras. But, I think it's important to analyze this from a particular point of view: the audience.

Now, I'm not one to say "play only music the audiences wants to hear," nor to say "write music for the masses." In fact, I think it's quite the opposite--part of the orchestras job is to challenge audiences. This isn't just with the music that is played, but in the actual style of performance.

That being said, an audience can tell pretty immediately if a group is enjoying themselves. They can tell when there is energy within the ensemble. Music performance has a way of transmitting the performers feelings, be it about the piece, the conductor, his/her stand-mate, or any other event in the performer's life. It's been said "Performers are naked on stage." This is true, whether you're a soloist or last chair in a section of a Mahler sized orchestra.

If we take that is true, that the audience can tell the emotions of the performer, how then do I go to concerts and not feel moved. Do the performers dislike the music? This happens sometimes. I've been to a premiere of a new work where it was obvious the players didn't like the music. Since I knew several members of the orchestra, I was able to ask them about the piece, and most showed general disdain for it. And, honestly, I could tell.

Part of this could be because I'm a trained musician. Articulations seemed just a bit sluggish. There wasn't the same amount of control in the playing--I wouldn't go so far as the say careless. I've never been to a professional orchestra concert that was "bad." But beyond the playing being a little lackluster, it was the movements, the facial expressions, the body language. There was a fair amount of concentration--the piece called for measure by measure accelerandos, done as accelerandos. The rhythms were pounding, repetitive, and dissonant. And the orchestra showed all of that. I could tell they thought this mode of writing the piece wasn't effective, as it seemed like they were only giving 85% of their concentration toward lining up those accelerandos. Articulations weren't quite lining up.

I didn't like the piece. This was before I was really getting into composition, but I had always loved "new music." And this piece didn't jive with me. As a composer now, remembering how the piece was written, yes, obviously, it was constructed poorly. Doing a rhythmic accelerando is much easier for the orchestra to read, line up, and concentrate on. But, part of the job of the performer is to sell any piece.

This reminds me of jazz band in college. I remember one rehearsal where various players kept flubbing notes (myself included). And most of us made faces. We knew we had missed it. And we choreographed that. Our director got on us immediately after he cut us off. "What are you doing?" he asked. "The audience may not know you missed the note. But even if they did notice, they're not going to care all that much unless your body screams 'I missed a note. I suck.' Then they will care and remember that missed note."

But this little tidbit goes both ways, I think. Almost every musician is told some form of the above: be stoic, be composed, don't show that you messed up. However, this can be taken too far.

I've been to orchestra concerts where it seemed like the entire orchestra was made of statues. Barely any movement, barely even a cracked smile. It seemed like the only things moving on the string players were their arms. All the brass had proper posture, brought their horns up, and played cleanly. When not playing, they were still, eyes forward.

I felt a sense of disconnect. Are these people? Are they enjoying themselves? They were performing the music wonderfully. Very clean, beautiful dynamic range, wonderful balance, nearly perfect intonation. But I wasn't drawn in. I felt like I was listening to a recording. Or starting at a painting. The only person moving was the conductor, and while he was entertaining, it still seemed odd.

I'm then reminded of a small local "pops" orchestra. I went to their concert because Nitzan Haroz was playing the Grondahl concerto, and then some jazz arrangements with the group. Nitzan is a beast of a player, the Grondahl has a special place in my heart (as it does for all sorts of trombone players...often as their first "real" concerto), and I hadn't been to an orchestra concert for about a year at this point.

These were not completely "amateur" players by any stretch. But there was a great contrast between them and the orchestra mentioned above. They moved with the music, section leaders brought in groups (possibly because they had to lead more), they were active on stage. Nothing flashy, not running around or anything like that, but active. Nitzan was also active as a soloist: he bent his knees, leaned back, swayed lightly with the music, seemed to go up on tiptoes as a rising quiet line went up, then let himself down as the line moved back down. It reminded me a great deal of my own playing, which people always commented was "lively and engaging."

I was drawn into Nitzan's playing, and I was drawn into the performance.

The last example I'll give is one I've mentioned before...though I now can't find it. I heard the Kansas City Symphony sparingly during my time in KC. By then my prejudices as a composer, the petty little "You won't deal with me as a composer, so why should I deal with you as an audience member?" It is petty. I fully admit that. It got worse after meeting their composer in residence...but that's a different story.

Anyway, I did go to the orchestral readings of UMKC composers works when I could. I referenced one earlier. One of the things I always remember from these readings is a certain violinist. She's much older than most in the group--she'd definitely be qualified as a "little old lady." I remember the moment the group of composers joked about her. I didn't join in the joking, but I'll admit to chuckling. Again, bad show on my part.

But then, she showed every single one of us kids how wrong we were. As we watched the group, the conductor was doing mainly straight patterns and light cuing. These were reading after all, so it gets much more difficult to "get into" the music at this point. Hence why I'm not talking about the whole orchestra--the situation is very different.

But this violinist was engaged every single moment. Our group couldn't help but move our eyes to her. She moved toward the edge of her seat as passages got louder. She seemed to draw back slightly with diminuendos. When she dug in with her bow for a hearty passage, we could all tell. Nothing she did made the music seem "difficult," like it was a strain. In fact, her engagement made the music seem easy--if she could react this way in a "reading," then think about what would happen during a well rehearsed performance.

The Kansas City Symphony has always set somewhere in the middle for me as far as orchestra responsiveness. They never seem disengaged or irate about playing a piece (well, a little with one piece I can think of...), but they were slightly reserved.

Reserved is a style of orchestral playing. Maybe it can be traced to the same time period as getting the strings to match bowings. Maybe it comes from an idea that "we need to stay out of the way as performers so the music can speak for itself." But, for me, as an audience member, I feel much more engaged when an orchestra as also acts engaged.

The final example I'll give is Bruckner's 4th Symphony with the ISO, Mario Venzaga conducting. If you've never seen Venzaga conduct, then you're missing out. Talk about a lively conductor. And his interpretations of Bruckner are always a joy to hear. And this performance was no exception. When Venzaga turned to the cellos, and gave a "stirring the pot" type gesture, hand low, swirling in a circle, the cellos responded immediately with their swirling line, giving a little bit of an accent on the beginning of each small repetition. They seemed to move forward slightly in their seats, and engage. The whole section knew this was an important part that Venzaga wanted pulled out, and they responded. These types of little moments happened frequently during the performance.

And, in my youthful exuberance (I think I was...19 or 20 at the time?), I leapt to my feet and gave a rousing standing O, including yells of "BRAVO!" Seriously, me, of all people...the guy that hardly gives a standing O these days. Heh.

As a performer, I can say that I was partially trained to "tone it down." Knowing my personality, I'm sure I was closer to Liberace than Nitzan Haroz with my body movements. There IS a limit of course. But audiences respond to that type of physical energy.

This doesn't mean the performers of the orchestras I've been to weren't amazing. The NY Phil was an amazing experience. The ISO and KCS never once sounded "bad" or put on a concert so poorly that I wanted my money back. Far from it. But what makes a performance great?

I think this connection, the performers showing they're connected with the music, the conductor, and each other, only helps to connect the audience with the performance. This doesn't mean go "Liberace" (for me, a newer case would Lang Lang...as my brother pointed out when I sent him a video of Lang Lang "He even dresses like Liberace!"). But it does mean don't be afraid to show emotion, move to the music, make eye contact across the ensemble when needed, and appear to be present.

Appearance is part of the game. And it may be one reason why people are being drawn to groups like eighth blackbird, who don't go to Liberace levels, but always show physical energy in performance. But then, chamber music is a different game, and one where energy is more prevalent.

And I'm not saying we should go back to "everyone bows non-uniformly" nor to "everyone where whatever they want to wear." But the appearance of being engaged, the physical energy and joy shown by the performers translates to the audience. And that is incredibly important to remember.

Please, audience members, conductors, performers, composers, EVERYONE, chime in! What draws you into a performance? Do the physical actions of the performers make a difference? Let's have a dialogue!

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