Here’s the latest in a series of articles about how undemonstrative and boring American orchestra musicans are. From the Chicago Sun-Times.
Here’s my take on the phenomenon. I love watching European orchestras play, especially the Berlin Philharmonic. They move like a teeming coral reef of musicality, with the violas being a school of clown fish, the basses are giant kelp, etc. They also sound incredible – even if I’m not looking at them. I’m not sure why European orchestras do this, but I do know that if you’re not a principal player, in an American orchestra you meet a lot of subtle (and some not-so-subtle) pressure to keep your movements to a minimum. If you’ve been playing chamber music and solo recitals in school, where movement is not only helpful (in the former) and freeing (in the latter) this takes some getting used to.
I think some of it may have something to do with the average age of the orchestra – if it’s on the older side, the players are of a different generation: they studied with people who were playing under Toscanini, Reiner and Szell. These tyranical conductors insisted upon almost militaristic standards of conduct both with regards to precision of playing and stage deportment. You didn’t want to catch they eye of these conductors – they were like the Gorgon of Greek mythology – one look and you were turned to stone for eternity.
It may also have to do with the mannerisms of the conductor who has been music director. A person in the vein of Lenny Bernstein might inspire a more taciturn stage presence, as the maestro is doing a lot on his own already, whereas a conductor who barely moves will inspire more movement from the players as they interpret his/her subtle movements into massive fortissimos and the like.
In the end, I feel, how musicians deport themselves falls within the strange-bedfellows arrangement of the combination of artistry and professionalism. Just how much or little musicians move as they play must be genuine, not contrived. We are artists, not entertainers. Entertainers deliver entertainment, and when they’re at their best they do it with consummate artistry. Artists deliver some of the most original and lasting monuments of the genius of humanity in the form of organized sound, and if they do it well, we can be both entertained and fundamentally changed at our core. We do our job at the service of the inspiration of the composer who brought the music into being as a written document. To place ourselves above the Urtext is to commit the worst form of heresy, and if we draw more attention to ourselves than to the music we’re re-creating then we’ve failed as performers. Perhaps I’m parsing the distinction too much here, but that’s how I feel about my role as an orchestral musician.
So, what about those Europeans? They come from a different tradition, they might perhaps have a closer connection to the music which comes from their continent, and they might just be happier than we Americans are. Somewhere along the line we in most American orchestras have lost the slender connection between our love of music and the job that we do. The combination of big business and fine arts is always a difficult one, and these are especially trying times for classical musicians of all stripes. Some few orchestras use their tradition of excellence and esprit de corps to boost morale: Philadelphia and Cleveland come to mind most readily. For those of us in ensembles which don’t have those storied histories and hallowed personalities, we try to make the beginnings of such traditions for ourselves. Perhaps, as we grow closer together over the coming years and welcome the growth in artistry that is sure to come, we will begin to operate as a new machine, full of movement and interest, high on its own, wonderful synergy.