Speaking of dancing…

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…

…The mere
thought that a visual element had any importance in their music-making
brings forth sneers, derision, or anger. Trying to explain to an
orchestra, for instance, that risers are important for visual reasons
and unless they absolutely destroy acoustical balance (as opposed to
simply creating a new acoustical environment to which musicians must
adjust) they are important ingredients in the way an audience
experiences a concert, can be a very futile conversation. The fact that
most people on the main floor cannot see the whole orchestra, or even a
majority of it, without risers, seems simply irrelevant to many
musicians. The idea that their facial expressions, their demonstration
of an emotional engagement with the music beyond the craft of playing
the notes, could be important elements in the viability and future
success of orchestras in this country, is laughed at.

People do not leave their eyes at home when they attend concerts.
What we hear is connected to what we see, and there is an
interdependence of senses that no rational person would deny. We are
dealing with a generation of people who have grown up wired differently
from those who matured before the ubiquitous presence of television,
let alone the Internet. I am not convinced, though, that this is even a
new, post-television issue. Read contemporary accounts of the great
virtuosos of the 19th century and you will find detailed descriptions
of the importance they clearly placed on how they looked.

I agree with Henry that American orchestras are far too static
physically. (An interesting comparison can be found betweeen a performance by Chicago/Solti of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde with Berlin/Rattle doing the Vorspiel; two great orchestras with very different ideas on the subject.) I explored the reasons for this in an article I wrote for Harmony a few years ago:

A frequent complaint about orchestras from audience members, for example, is the apparent lack of involvement of the musicians in the performance. Why do orchestra musicians move so little and seem so passive, while chamber musicians move so much and seem so involved in their work? Chamber musicians are leading each other with their movements, of course, while orchestra musicians are being led by someone external to the ensemble. But more important is the musicians’ internalized belief that the Music Director is the performer, not they. The audience was sold tickets for the Music Director’s performance, not the orchestra’s. One is pleased to see a pianist physically involved in his or her performance; to have the piano physically involved would be distracting. Doesn’t the real drama of an orchestral performance lie in the ability of one man to control the masses in front of him with a little stick? Wouldn’t the masses moving independently disrupt the drama of the puppetmaster pulling the puppets’ strings?

The complaints about musician passivity prove the opposite. “The masses” moving is actually better entertainment, not worse. Regardless of whether or not audiences come to see the Music Director, they will enjoy the performance far more if the orchestra looks involved as well, or put another way, if the orchestra is performing as well. In a modern society, teamwork is far more attractive than dictatorship. But the orchestra will look as committed as the conductor only if the orchestra is as committed as the conductor, and that commitment comes not solely from a sense of professionalism, but from a sense of ownership as well.

Making matters worse is that orchestras have internal cultures that are remarkably resistant to change. I have seen musicians join orchestras who move a lot at first; over time they move less and less. Perhaps they just get bored, jaded and cynical (at least that’s the rap on us orchestra musicians, isn’t it?) More likely is that they feel a lot of pressure to fit in. If the orchestra’s internal culture encourages physical passivity, that’s what they’ll fit in to. If it doesn’t (and Berlin’s clearly doesn’t), then they’ll fit into that. Often the pressure is implicit, though sometimes musicians are told quite openly not to move too much or, in an orchestra like Berlin, given or denied tenure partly on the basis of whether or not they move with the rest of the orchestra.

That begs the question of how to change the internal culture, of course. I wish I had an answer to that. But I’m pretty insensitive to social cues, which means that I’m not very good understanding internal cultures. And I move a lot (although I think that’s excused in principal strings). I don’t have a clue what my colleagues think about that.

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