Is there a glass ceiling for orchestral musicians?

Just a couple days ago, local classical music critic Brett Campbell wrote an omnibus review of classical music events from the latter months of 2012. Among the concerts reviewed was the opening concert of 45th Parallel’s 2012-2013 concert season, entitled “Octetlandia”. It paired two little-heard works for the string octet with the great octet of Felix Mendelssohn. The audience response was exceptional (as was the attendance). I’ve continued to hear positive comments about the concert from patrons that I’ve run into around town in the months since.

Here is the section of the Oregon Arts Watch article that pertained to the concert:

. . .  45th Parallel‘s November 15 concert, which had a lot a going for it: accomplished orchestral musicians from the Oregon Symphony and other worthy institutions, most with chamber music experience; a good cause (supporting Portland’s all-classical public radio station); a buoyant certified classic (Mendelssohn’s familiar Octet), and a pair of short, dazzling works by one of 20th century’s towering composers (Shostakovich). Because these are primarily orchestral musicians who lack the time to really develop chemistry with each other or interpretive depth in a given piece, we can’t expect the same level of mastery of chamber works you’d see in, say, a Friends of Chamber Music or Chamber Music Northwest concert; one member admitted that the group had spent only a week with one of the pieces, Bruch’s seldom performed Octet.

It turned out to be a pretty thin piece anyway. I’m all for playing more than just the usual warhorses (like the Mendelssohn octet), but the time spent rehearsing Bruch’s octet would have been more profitably used to give the Mendelssohn classic an interpretation with more character than the relatively bland one offered here. Booting the Bruch would also have allowed the concert to last an hour, without an intermission, which in turn would have permitted more time for socializing at the reception afterward. And the audience would have left energized rather than enervated; I spotted several dozers during the Bruch — quite a contrast from the spontaneously explosive applause that erupted for the one really exciting performance — the Scherzo, from Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet Op. 11.

Those of us in the ensemble that played that night were taken aback by this reaction to the concert (with the caveat that we do recognize that you could survey five different attendees of a given concert and get five different accounts of what actually took place there). 45th Parallel artistic director and violinist Greg Ewer gave this response in the comment section of Campbell’s piece:

Wow Brett. Way to see the glass as half empty! We are lucky enough to live in Portland, which is bursting at the seams with talented, committed artists, and your take, after hearing an entire season’s worth of music, is to ask for pity on the local ‘musically overstuffed music journalist’? Thank goodness you don’t speak for 45th Parallel’s audience members. As my esteemed colleague Justin Kagan remarked this morning, “More than a few spoke of crying at the beatific final measures of the slow movement of the Bruch.” You know…the Bruch…that piece you suggested we should have “booted” to allow “more time for socializing at the reception afterward.”

And your comment that “these are primarily orchestral musicians who lack the time to really develop chemistry with each other or interpretive depth in a given piece?” WTF Brett?? Way to slap a glass ceiling onto the musicians of your community. As the Artistic Director of 45th Parallel, I believe in taking risks. Many of us get up on stage having just explored a piece for the first time, knowing full well that with another week and a few more rehearsals it could be more polished. There is bound to be variation from concert to concert because personnel, repertoire, venues and group chemistry are always shifting. We are most decidedly not the same as travelling musicians who play the same 2 or 3 programs in different cities throughout the year. It is not a useful comparison. And even so, I say with confidence that some of the more magical performances from our first four years would be measure up nicely, even against the stiffest of competition.

We explore lesser known works, both new and old. We bring musicians together who have sometimes never met one another, and we dive into as much musical exploration as time and circumstances permit …and we do it with a generous spirit of love and enthusiasm for our challenging art form! Why must you repeatedly trot out the tired notion that because musicians are gainfully employed and busy, that the community shouldn’t really expect much from us? It’s shortsighted and frankly disrespectful to suggest it.

You are right that the classical music world needs to have its collective eyes wide open and its thinking caps on in order to respond to a changing musical landscape. You have been a powerful local advocate for this way of thinking, and I applaud you for it. But just as you constantly challenge all of us, I would challenge you as well, to be more open to musical offerings outside your wheelhouse, and to reevaluate your notion of what it means to be a ‘local’ musician in our modern day musical landscape.

And then Oregon Arts Watch’s Barry Johnson stepped in with today’s post, which aimed both to defend Campbell (who I think doesn’t need much defending, I’d love to see a full-length article that explores what he thinks the options are for classical music organizations in this time of maximum uncertainty – that would perhaps serve to clear up whatever misapprehensions we performers had about his reaction to our concert). He starts his piece thusly:

ArtsWatch classical music critic Brett Campbell is perfectly capable of defending both himself and his arguments after he posted his roundup of reviews of holiday season concerts a couple of days ago,“MusicWatch reviews: Less is more.”

But because his primary contention seems to have hit a nerve in the music community, maybe I can help him out a little, by providing a little more context for his primary suggestion.

In case you didn’t read his post (and you should, it navigates a LOT of music, some of it beautifully played), Brett argues that music directors often stuff their programs too full of music,  to the detriment of the both the audience and the music itself. In doing so, he addressed the processes that go into making a concert a little bit, specifically the amount of rehearsal necessary to prepare a complicated piece of music for the public. And he considered the capacity of the audience to digest large chunks of that complicated music.

I’m not sure why some of the responses to his post were angry ones. Maybe the commenters think that both of those subjects should be off-limits to the critic, even though they are critical to the experience of the audience (and the musicians, if you think about it).

But with the performing arts in general and classical music in particular, we’ve reached a point of dwindling resources and shrinking audiences. And perhaps it’s time to begin to re-consider our processes and experiences. Strike that “perhaps.” It IS time.

And in any case, Brett’s arguments don’t come completely out of the blue. Artists and arts administrators are thinking about them in other places, and some have even begun to experiment with new models. Maybe classical music has resisted that experimentation more than most other forms. (And maybe strike that “maybe”?)

Johnson is a big idea guy, this is clear, and he very skillfully pivots away from what really offended us performers (that orchestral musicians can’t put together meaningful explorations of non-orchestral music in a relatively short rehearsal period) and moved it into the realm of how organizations can better serve their audiences while also being true to themselves, and being adventurous while also keeping the bills paid.

So, there’s all of the information surrounding this minor kerfuffle. What do you think about this?



10 Replies to “Is there a glass ceiling for orchestral musicians?”

  1. I think it’s great that Brett Campbell wrote what he wrote, that Greg responded with passion, that you and Barry Johnson added to the conversation…You get the idea. I disagree with Brett Campbell on some particulars in this review, (although I couldn’t agree more that the Shostakovitch was the highlight) but he did exactly what a critic should do.

    Something I take issue with — beyond what you said, Charles — is the implication that playing full time in an orchestra doesn’t create “chemistry.” In my experience, hundreds of hours per year of shared input and influences create a shared groundwork, the soil that gives a fertile foundation for musical interpretation, plus making it possible to put something together in a coherent way very quickly. The thing that’s usually missing as compared to established chamber groups is the opportunity to perform the pieces repeatedly. That’s what allows a “ripening” that can’t be duplicated.

  2. Surely the reference to Chamber Music NorthWest was a mistake? The last time I heard the Mendelssohn Octet at CMNW Ida Kavafian was playing 1st violin with Jun Iwasaki as 2nd – not exactly an ensemble that had developed a lot of chemistry over time. (And Jun should have been playing 1st IMHO.)
    One of the pleasures of a concert like the one at the Old Church is experiencing the joy orchestral musicians take in playing chamber music together – and playing it really well. (I wasn’t at that particular concert and I’m having trouble imagining what a “relatively bland” performance of that piece could possibly sound like.) And some of the best-known, most highly-regarded ensembles on the chamber music circuit would do well to convey a little more joy in their performances, in addition to their obvious “mastery” of the piece.
    But Campbell’s “do shorter concerts, cut the Bruch, spend more time socializing” arguments left me at a loss for words.

      1. hahaha, nice one, charles, touche!

        actually, i was hoping this cute little trick of mine would help propel more folks over to the complete discussion currently underway @ OAW. reading the entirety of all posts on this worthy topic is time well spent, imo.

  3. I wasn’t at this concert, living as I do on the other side of the world, but what I find very odd about the notion that orchestral musicians can’t play chamber music is that there are a lot of big-name soloists who form ad hoc chamber groups, or who play in a chamber formation that can only get together very rarely. I should have thought that if we were going to make in-principle determinations about who’s likely to play well together and who’s not, a group of soloists who are used to having their own way and rarely play together with others would potentially make the worst chamber players. Orchestral players are at least used to the give-and-take of ensemble playing. So I don’t see why this critic is singling out orchestral players.

    But the whole idea of an in-principle determination on this issue is silly: the proof of the pudding is the playing. I wonder if this critic could tell, in a blind test, whether a chamber piece was being played by a stable ensemble or an ad hoc group? In any case, all octets are ad hoc: at most, you’d get two quartets playing together and even if each quartet is used to its own members, they still have to get used to the other quartet, and two busy quartets are unlikely to have as much as a week to rehearse together.

    As for the notion that people would prefer less music and more time to gab over cocktails, well speak for yourself, Mr Critic. I find the conversation of one’s fellow concertgoers (to which one is necessarily subjected waiting for the performance to start and at the intermission) irritating enough without seeking out more of it afterwards. (I took to bringing earplugs with me to concerts after a sublime performance of Szymanowski 2 was spoilt by the boorish comments of people next to me during the intermission: ‘well, I like a tune you can tap your foot to and that sure wasn’t one of those’ &c. Ugh!) If I go to the hassle of going out in the evening for a concert, I want to hear live music. Yakking you can find anywhere. Chamber music is precious.

    I didn’t know the Bruch octet and can’t find a version of it on Spotify, but I’m now listening to his Septet and enjoying it very much, so I’m grateful to the players of the Oregon Symphony and to you, Mr Noble, for making me aware of this corner of the repertoire.

  4. I’m glad I wasn’t a musician involved in this concert, simply because I would probably have said some very uncomplimentary things to the “critic” after his “review”. I always appreciate hearing an unknown work simply to have the opportunity to make my own impression of it. Maybe I would have loved the Bruch, maybe I’d have been indifferent to it, but my main concern is being grateful for the musicians who give me the chance to make my mind up in a live concert. Anyhow, I definitely do not look at my watch thinking “Oh I wish this music would end so I can sink a few more drinks at the reception afterwards…”

    How can a critic know how intense a short period of rehearsal can be? I’ve done some fantastic concerts on only one 3 hour rehearsal – possible because of the intensity of the work during that short time and the musical abilities of all concerned. I’m sure that none of the musicians in this concert would have committed to the gig if they hadn’t felt they could produce something they could be proud of in the rehearsal time available. Sometimes limited preparation time has a great way of concentrating the mind to make special things happen. From the other side of the coin, there have been many occasions when I’ve also heard big name, established chamber music groups on tour phone in interpretations of great music which made me wish I’d stayed home and listened to CDs instead.

    As for a “glass ceiling” for orchestral musicians, I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. If you spend a large part of your working time in an orchestra – not to mention all the preparation time outside of actual rehearsals/concerts that is involved, you are a musician in peak condition who can produce the goods and more in chamber music repertoire. In fact I would even say that orchestral musicians probably bring an additional perspective to smaller chamber music ensembles, precisely because of their ongoing experience in the orchestra, something which full time chamber music players might not possess.

    (A 2nd violinist who loves playing both orchestral and chamber music and will give her very best to all the concerts she does…!)

  5. I just reread that article. The only thing positive I have to offer in response is that modern audiences should know that the rules of concert attendance are flexible. For example, our crazy musician schedule doesn’t always allow us to attend the complete concert. I often see musicians come late or leave early because of gigs or certain programming. How often in college did students leave after the soloist to practice or hop in just to see their teacher play a big excerpt? In the OSO they’ve even structured it at times (example Andre Watts) that the soloist is at the end so that people won’t exit at intermission and are exposed to music they otherwise may not have heard. I personally am not a fan of this because I would totally just come to the second half, but props to the powers that be for getting people to listen to things outside of their box.
    My point is, instead of shortening concerts for everyone and punishing those who like to experience 2+ hrs away from the rat race, change the “its all or nothing” mentality to choose your own adventure.

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