The Orchestral Experience-When It’s Good, It’s Very Good, and When It’s Not, It’s…

While browsing the Comcast home page a few weeks ago, I came across this video about The Really Terrible Orchestra.

I looked at their website, and part of their mission statement struck me:

It began with our envying the pleasure our children gained from music. And as nobody else would have us, we formed our own orchestra. Alexander (“Sandy”) McCall Smith, our Founder, said “ It won’t be a good orchestra, in fact it will be a really terrible one” and that is how the name came to be.

This got me to thinking about my own orchestral experiences. I’ve played in all sorts of orchestras, beginning with a “reading orchestra” when I was seven years old, all the way up to a professional opera orchestra as an adult. As a child, there were a few times that I was tempted to quit the viola. I never did, because I loved playing in orchestra. It’s a unique experience. You’re surrounded by a sea of sound and the energy of your fellow musicians. However, it’s not always a bed of roses. There are four ingredients which contribute to a musician’s enjoyment of the orchestral experience-the chemistry between the orchestra and conductor, the chemistry between the orchestral players, the repertoire played in the orchestra, and the quality of the orchestral players. I’ve experienced various degrees of those four ingredients throughout the years.

Orchestra A

This was the worst orchestra in which I’ve ever played. It consisted of music conservatory students, professional musicians who made a living by playing orchestral gigs, and musicians from the local community. The conservatory students thought they were better than everybody else. The professional musicians were blasé, since this was just another gig. The community musicians resented the conservatory students and professionals. No one cared for the conductor, who waved his hands as if he were flicking off water before using a hand dryer in a public restroom. The overall quality of players and musical repertoire didn’t matter, because everybody was having a terrible time. Concert days were awful. There would be a dress rehearsal, a three-hour dinner break, and then the performance. Many of the musicians would go to the local bar, fill up on wings and beer, and come back from dinner feeling wobbly. Needless to say, the performances were less than spectacular.

Orchestra B

This group consisted entirely of music conservatory students. The problem was that many of the musicians didn’t want to be there. Most of them would rather have been alone in a practice room, because they wanted to pursue careers as soloists. This was frustrating to those of us who wanted to pursue an orchestral career, because we needed the experience of playing in a good orchestra. However, since all of the musicians were conservatory students, the level of playing ability was very high. The quality of the orchestra varied, depending on who was conducting us and what we were playing. One of the best concerts was with a conductor who led us in a performance of Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms. The conductor insisted on excellence, and he demanded that we focus. He commanded our respect, and it turned into a magical performance. Another great concert was when we played Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. Even though the conductor was mediocre, he understood the piece very well and had a lot of enthusiasm. It was something that translated to us, and we had a great time.

Orchestra C

My favorite orchestral experience was in the youth orchestra in which I played during high school. It was fun because all of the musicians were there purely for the love of performing in an orchestra. The level of ability ranged from students who were hoping to pursue careers in music to students who played just for fun. We did some incredible repertoire, including Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler, and Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss. Inevitably, with any group of teenagers, there was quite a bit of horsing around. There was a very memorable incident in a rehearsal involving the principal oboist. He had taken off his shoes, and someone in the back of the second violin section swiped one of them without his noticing. The shoe was passed all the way up to the front of the orchestra and placed on the conductor’s podium. The conductor held up the shoe and looked extremely confused.  The oboist realized it was his shoe and turned bright red. The rest of us dissolved into laughter. Another time, our conductor became frustrated at us because we were playing too slowly. He told us that we sounded like an old man sitting on the toilet. That is certainly not something that would happen in a professional orchestra.

So how terrible is The Really Terrible Orchestra? Who cares! The musicians enjoy working together. The audience enjoys waiting for a catastrophe. Everybody has a good time and goes home happy. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.

If you would like to learn more about The Really Terrible Orchestra, here’s a link to a short documentary.

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