Archive for February, 2008

The Myth of the Music Police

February 29, 2008

That got your attention, didn’t it? Drew McManus has a very interesting post about what’s known colloquially as “the music police” and how managements should deal with them:

The Music Police are orchestra musicians who, for a whole host of diverse reasons, believe they have an innate authority to determine what qualifies as acceptable musical standards within their respective ensemble. These musicians act alone or sometimes form one of the numerous cliques found in the vast majority of professional orchestras. It is important to point out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with one musician having an opinion about a colleague’s musical abilities (you’re more likely to find Waldo than a musician who doesn’t); however, when one or more musician decide to impose their musical standards on fellow musicians in a way that involves a manager is when the silent alarms should start going off through the office.

As an orchestra musician for most of my adult life, and a union officer for some part of that time, I’ve had to deal with this phenomenon. I don’t enjoy it. I also don’t enjoy being lectured by people in the union business on the subject (and I don’t mean Drew). The self-righteousness of those who want to impose their standards on their colleagues is just one more thing that can making going to work seem like a chore. It makes little difference whether those standards are musical or behavioral.

Those who preach that the Music Police are charter members of the Axis of Evil show very little interest in examining why musicians sometimes take it on themselves to engage in such conduct. I find it uninteresting to condemn conduct that is an inevitable consequence of a dysfunctional or poorly designed workplace. And I have little patience for people who reduce complexities to witch hunts.

There’s not an orchestra musician alive who hadn’t been driven to distraction by their own inadequacies. That’s how we get better. There’s not an orchestra musician alive who hasn’t been driven to distraction by the musical failings of some of their colleagues. And there’s not an orchestra musician alive who hasn’t been driven into a blind rage by the failure of conductors to hear those failings and not to at least try to fix them, if only by rehearsing properly.

But of course, as orchestra musicians, we are barred by taboo from trying to address problems in rehearsal; that’s the conductor’s job. Yet it’s our orchestra that suffers when the conductor doesn’t do it. We are the ones who end up sounding ragged, or out of tune, or just plain bad. And, being musicians, it’s very hard to detach ourselves, and our self-images, from a bad performance. It might well not have been our fault. But it’s still us that sound bad.

In the absence of any apparent effort by the conductor or management to address such issues, it is inevitable that many members of the orchestra will feel the temptation to try to do so themselves, and that some will actually act on that impulse. For my part, I’d hate to play in an orchestra where no one cared about how things sounded or were incapable of figuring out where problems might be. For the most part, that temptation comes from very honorable motives; professional pride and a desire for excellence.

Should musicians run to management, or the conductor, with their lists of who should be fired? Of course not. Over the long term, such behavior is very harmful to the orchestra – almost as harmful as the institutional failings that lead musicians to believe that no one else is going to address problems of poor playing. But let’s not pretend that we all don’t have a pretty good idea of where the musical issues are in our orchestras, or that we don’t want to see them addressed.

The music police are not the problem, and beating on them is not the
solution. In virtually every instance, the real problem is either that
the wrong person was hired for a position or that musicians are not
adequately supervised and their long-term performance monitored. Hire
the right people, let them know how they’re doing on a regular ongoing
basis – and the music police will vanish as a substantive problem for
managers, unions, and orchestra musicians.

Yes, that does sound a little like “buy low, sell high, and you’ll
make money in the markets.” I didn’t say it was easy. But it is simple.


No rules for management at least

February 21, 2008

Daniel Wakin posted an article on the Budapest Festival Orchestra on his New York Times blog:

Mr. Fischer’s orchestra, he said, has three cardinal virtues, established at its creation: an emphasis on the players’ individual creativity; few rules, for maximum flexibility; and unusual programming.
… The no-rules rule means no long-term contracts, no overtime and auditions that end up with five or six finalists who play with the orchestra.

Oddly enough, my orchestra, which has plenty of rules, also has
auditions that produce finalists who play with the orchestra before
being hired (which I assume is what was meant). But it was the “no
overtime” and “no long-term contracts” that caught my attention.


Salome wrap-up

February 19, 2008

There seem to be a lot of Salome performances happening. The Met Opera
Orchestra just did the last scene in concert with Deborah Voight at Carnegie Hall, while
the Royal Opera House in London is about to start a very
well-publicized run, leading the Guardian to run a good article about
the opera.

Our final performance was on Sunday afternoon in the face of a
threatened blizzard (which turned out to be about an inch of snow).
Evidently I hadn’t had enough, because I found myself listening to a
recording on Monday.


Not a Squishedivarius after all

February 17, 2008

Apparently David Garrett didn’t smash up his Strad. Boy I am relieved.


Speaking of dancing…

February 17, 2008

Not that orchestras will ever achieve the visual interest of a Strauss opera about incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, and stripping, but Henry Fogel thinks we could try harder than we do:

Sadly, my experience with many (dare I say most) American orchestra
musicians, when I have raised this subject, has not been good…


After 1, Jochanaan’s a head

February 16, 2008

OK, it’s a bad joke. But he’ll be a head after performances 2 and 3 also.

We did our first of three performances of Salome last night. It took a little while to get organized; to spare the singers, the opera company generally schedules the dress rehearsal on Wednesday and the opening on Friday. So we hadn’t seen the piece (or each other) for a couple of days. With a warhorse, that wouldn’t be a problem. With something as unfamiliar and difficult as Salome, it can be. But things seemed to right themselves pretty quickly. Our local critic was very enamoured of the soprano, but thought we "played with a glorious combination of precision and excitement" too. It sure didn’t feel precise, but Strauss is oddly forgiving of imprecision.

We had a little excitement in the viola "A" section (there are two viola parts, A and B, each one divided in multiple ways), as my standpartner came down with what sounds like flu. Jamie Hofman, who’s playing the outside part on 2nd desk, took over the uncovered inside first desk lines when possible, and Sara Harmelink, who’s playing inside 2nd desk, played the uncovered notes in the many chords that have solo notes in them. I counted very carefully, not having Erin to tell me when to come in, and we all survived. Her absence did give us a little more room (and allowed me to get out of the principal flute’s line of sight to the conductor, for which she was grateful), and it was easier to see the part, not having to share it. Hardly adequate compensation for her absence, though. Most times it’s not a big deal when someone in the section is absent (including the principal, by the way). Strauss provides many of the exceptions to that rule.

The local critic loved the dance as well. I think we’re going to have to get video monitors in the pit  into our next contract. Isn’t there a musical case to be made for seeing what’s happening on stage? We could all accompany the dance much better if we could see what’s going on. No, of course we wouldn’t be distracted. We’re professionals.

When good artists happen to bad people

February 15, 2008

When should an artist dissent? The answer, for Arts and Ammo, is when the Right tells him to:

Scott Spiegelberg at Musical Perceptions points approvingly to pianist Leon Fleisher’s aversion to going to a White House occupied by George Bush and to conductor Lorin Maazel’s eagerness to perform for Kim Jong-il in North Korea.

It’s easy to find approval these days shunning the supposed dictator Bush while cozying up to real dictators elsewhere.

The writer (whose name I can’t find on his/her blog) goes to to excoriate my brother-in-bratsche-blogging Charles Noble for having defended the decision of the New York Philharmonic to go to North Korea (with the approval, I would add, of President Bush’s State Department).


Why your case should be newer than your violin

February 15, 2008

Patty Mitchell asks the right question about the Case of The Frangible Fiddle:

But what I want to know is … what the heck kind of case was he using
that apparently didn’t protect the valuable instrument at all? Are all
violin cases that fragile? Or was it just the crashing to the ground,
not the crashing on to the case that did the damage? (I’m
guessing an oboe in it’s case wouldn’t fare well either, but not
because of the owner landing on the case so much as the slamming to the

What was he using for a case? A plastic bag? I’ve had several memorable falls with viola case in hand. Once I slipped on the ice and fell right on top of the case. A couple of years ago I took a bad tumble on an uneven sidewalk, which sent my case flying and resulted in a broken fourth finger and eight weeks of enforced rest. In neither case was there more damage to my fiddle than a string or two being knocked out of tune. I even fell off a stage during a performance of the Brahms C minor piano quartet – in mid-phrase yet – and managed to keep my instrument above my head and undamaged (fortunately it was a very low stage and the steps down were carpeted, so I wasn’t damaged either, except in terms of never ever living the incident down).

It’s amazing that instruments don’t get damaged more often, given the close quarters we inhabit on stage and the seeming casualness with which we handle these delicate and valuable artifacts (one of our cellists twirls his old Italian cello on its endpin on occasion when bored; my heart skips a few beats every time I see him do that). I suspect we develop a very acute sense of where the instrument ends and danger begins, as my instinctive reaction in raising my instrument when falling backwards proved. I know how uneasy I get whenever my scroll threatens to get too close to our assistant principal cellist’s frog, which is not very close at all.

But splintering a million-pound Strad because of a lousy case? If I were that guy’s insurance company, I’d be pissed.

The third step for a board recovering from a self-inflicted wound

February 14, 2008

The board of the Jacksonville Symphony is following the time-honored
score for hard-ass boards. First they force the musicians out on the
street, then they settle after inflicting a great deal of pain on the
musicians and significant damage to the institution of which they are
the custodians. Then they fire the executive director:

James Van Vleck, chairman of the symphony’s board, informed the symphony and board of directors in an e-mail Wednesday.

“After intensive and extensive discussions and assessment of the
leadership needs of the Jacksonville Symphony Association at this
critical time, the Executive Committee determined that new, fresh
leadership would give the association the greatest chance for success
in the years ahead,” the e-mail read.


Dance of the Seven Violas

February 14, 2008

Yes, we’re doing Salome this week. What a bitch. And Salome’s not a very nice person either. In fact there’s not a character in the whole opera I’d want to have a beer with.

We did the opera about eight years ago in concert. I don’t remember it being this hard. Of course being in the pit doesn’t help. It’s a huge orchestra, so the pit is jammed (the percussion is actually in the trap room) and I’m right in front of the oboes and flutes. As a result there are large chunks of the opera during which I can barely hear what I’m doing. I certainly can’t hear the fiddles at all, which is a definite handicap in this piece. I tried plugs, but there are lots of solos, which I find unbearable to play with plugs. But playing without plugs is pretty unbearable at times.

It’s a wonderful work. I think it suffers from early-Strauss compositional overkill, though – lots of extremely hard and counter-intuitive passagework that can’t be heard at all (just as well, perhaps). And it goes by fast, and there are lots of meter changes and tempi changes and key signature changes. That wouldn’t matter so much if the parts were less challenging. As it is, I feel that I’m running out of brain. No doubt it’s a piece that’s much more manageable after it’s been internalized the way that orchestra musicians internalize the warhorses of our repertoire.

The big question for any production of Salome is, of course, does she or doesn’t she at the end of the dance. I’m told that this production features full backal nudity. Fortunately we have a wonderful soprano who is not a blob. Unfortunately the violas are quite busy at the critical moment.

I guess I’ll have to settle for Catherine Malfitano on YouTube.