A Joyful Noise

Community orchestras are a wonderful thing … sort of. Last night I played a concert with the Silicon Valley Symphony. Tonight we’re repeating the program. It’s a good orchestra, capable of tackling fairly challenging repertoire and bringing it home. But I see both the plusses and the minuses.

Playing in such an orchestra is enjoyable first and foremost because it gives you a chance (indeed, an obligation) to sit in a chair and pay close attention to a complex piece by Brahms or Beethoven for 25 or 30 minutes at a stretch. Being in the audience just isn’t the same: In the audience, your mind can wander. At least, mine does. And an audience member is unlikely to sit through the same pieces week after week, becoming more closely acquainted with them.

There’s some satisfaction in being able to do a good job. Also, the orchestras provide a welcome outlet for soloists who are very capable but are not quite ready to play a concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, and may never be.

On the other side of the coin are two issues.

First, playing in a symphony is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a creative activity. Someone hands you a stack of paper with little dots on every sheet, and your job is to wiggle your fingers in ways that match the dots. Years of training are required, so the activity is a little more sophisticated than being a ditch digger, but if it took years of training to be a ditch digger, the two would be quite comparable with respect to the scope one has for personal expression or meaning.

Beyond that, even the best community orchestras are not, in my experience, able to do truly fine performances. There are always rough edges. Someone in the bass section can be relied on to jump in early during a rest. The violins’ intonation is likely to be quite shaky during fast passages. French horn entrances are hit-or-miss. Once in a while, the conductor may even drop a beat; it’s rare, but it happens.

So the upshot is, I drive down to rehearsal on the freeway, week after week, in order to perform what is essentially a mechanical activity, for which I don’t get paid, and after the concert I find myself saying, “Well, that wasnt too bad.”

I’m not a candidate for a better orchestra. I make a few little mistakes from time to time too. I’m where I’m supposed to be. I just wish it was more satisfying.

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