misc orchestral stuff

Photo: Kirk McKoy - Los Angeles Times

I became aware of a recent LA Times article about the LA Philharmonic’s principal violist Carrie Dennis through Marjorie Talvi’s blog.  Here’s the headline: Carrie Dennis is easy to notice in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The sub-headline is: Yes, she’s the principal violist and deeply respected by her peers. But what makes her stand out are her animated movements during concerts.

I’m bothered by this, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, that this story exists at all.  Why would someone at the LA Times choose to run this story? Is an animated presence on the stage of a major orchestra such a big deal? Was the story planted by someone within the orchestra?  It just seems like such a strange angle on the story about this particular player (who is known in the biz to be quite an animated player).  She’s had such an illustrious career for someone who is in her 30’s.  Why not focus on her start in the Philadelphia Orchestra, her stint in the Berlin Philharmonic, and her arrival to the Los Angeles Philharmonic?  I guess it’s just doesn’t smack of what little controversy they were able to dig up about her amount of bodily motion when she plays.  Another thing that bothers me, no one in her section would go on the record with attribution, except for Jerry Epstein, who retired at the end of last season.  That makes me wonder where the buzz that prompted this article came from.

Another thing that sort of hangs in the air in this article is the dwelling on the fact that she’s a female principal – it almost seems a little like the fetishizing of Cynthia Phelps during the first part of her tenure as principal violist of the New York Philharmonic.  She was a darling of the New York press, and was often written about more for the gowns she wore on gala nights than how she played.  It just goes to show that when you’re a woman in a position of power, you’ll always be taken by appearance first, and by talent second.  And that makes me sad.  Shouldn’t we be past that sort of thing?

12 Replies to “misc orchestral stuff”

    1. Hi Majorie!
      I must say I look forward to your posts on “Frantic: The Memoir” and “Magic Moments”. Absolutely fascinating reads!!! 🙂

  1. I can see how this piece could be taken as sexist and/or frivolous, however I also think it is a wonderful way to connect the public to the orchestra on a human level. As a stand-alone article, it is indeed awkward in its focus; but I like that the character study gets an outsider interested in the personnel and politics of playing viola.

  2. Freud could have called it “quality envy.” John Lennon “Woman is n—– of the world.” (nword) My take – if you don’t like the looks/motions of a player – CLOS

  3. She moves, so what?! While it is a strange subject to broach, I have to agree with Jon in saying that is a good way to make the orchestra seem more “human”.

  4. LA Phil subscriber here. Odd article to be sure but I didn’t sense any malice behind it. Her movements do set her apart from others and, yes, they are very noticeable. Regarding her section not commenting for attribution – The Phil controls its PR and access to its musicians very tightly. I would expect that they have a list of musicians that are authorized to speak to the media.

    I didn’t see an angle about her being a female principal. Deborah Borda has been running the Phil very effectively as the ED and there are many other women in positions of power in LA’s artistic world – as performers and behind the scenes. I don’t think it is an issue.

  5. Thank you, Michael, for the kind words about my memoir. After reading what Charles wrote, I began to wonder how this ended up in the press in the first place?! Really, so what’s the big deal? And then, I know that the media plays dirty often, as I’ve been a victim of dreadful spin articles. So, it is with sensitivity that I partake in this topic.

    I am of the old school, in that I believe excessive movement during playing can interfere with cohesive ensemble. I believe it is enough—more than enough, actually—to have one conductor to follow. But on the other hand, I don’t feel one should feel straight jacketed in a section.

  6. First of all, I am a big fan of this blog and I greatly appreciate your writing and perspective.

    While I do agree this article has a certain weightlessness; I don’t agree that it’s a bad thing. I think it just illustrates the chasm between how we see ourselves vs how most people see us.

    As a career section string player, I feel it’s ok to acknowledge that we can’t individually influence the sound in a way the audience can perceive. Outside of a few moments, I would include principal strings too. The reporter has merely chosen a topic that virtually any observer can detect.

    Playing in an orchestra is a team sport and I think it would be unhelpful to its readers for an article to dissect the playing of a single string player. What would the reader listen for at the next concert?

    This article was presumably written for the current and potential audience of the Philharmonic. I’m not sure more words on her past orchestra jobs would have been a more effective way to build a relationship between the audience and one of the orchestra’s members.

  7. Hi Charles,I share your skepticism as to the motive behind the article.
    Although, I could perfectly believe that a secondary goal of this article was to help give off the idea that orchestral music is also a visual experience. I’m sure that a large portion of the ‘potential audience’ believes there isn’t much of a difference between a recording and a live performance.

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