I love getting together with other amateur musicians to play the great works of the symphonic repertoire. When you’re sitting in the middle of an orchestra playing a piece by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, or Sibelius you experience the music in a much more direct and detailed way than if you hear it from the audience or on a CD. If nothing else, playing the music requires that you pay attention and listen to every single measure. Listeners’ minds can wander; musicians’ minds … well, that happens once in a while, but you’d better hope it doesn’t happen often.
The problem community orchestras face, and it’s serious, is that there aren’t enough good string players to go around. Here in the Bay Area we have, arguably, too many community orchestras. Good amateur and semi-pro players routinely scurry around playing in two (or even three) groups — and even so, the string sections are often short-staffed.
A standard orchestral roster includes two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, four French horns — and twenty violins, ten in the first violin section and ten more in the second section. When kids start playing instruments in fifth grade, if they choose their instruments at random, it’s easy to see that when they grow up you’ll be ten times as likely to find a good oboist for an opening in your orchestra as a good violinist.
The two players sitting at the front of a string section of a community orchestra are usually comparable in ability to the wind players. The rest of the section tends to be made up of players who are not well enough trained, don’t practice enough, or both.
Violas are a particular problem, because the viola is not a popular instrument. If you have ten violinists in each section, you need eight violas to balance the sound. Chances are, you’ll have three or four.
Right now I’m playing in the Silicon Valley Symphony (not to be confused with Symphony Silicon Valley, which is a different group). At our first rehearsal this week, we had three first violins, three seconds, two violas, three cellos, and one bass. Such a tiny string section simply can’t balance the sound coming from the winds, because winds are inherently louder than strings. That’s why the standard orchestral lineup calls for more strings!
Instead of studying the music or working on publicity, our conductor has to scramble around trying to fill the empty chairs.
Another factor is that conductors like to program major works from the repertoire. These works were written (in the 19th century, for the most part) at a time when the musical culture was radically different. Amateur musicianship was more highly prized than today, because there were no recordings, no TV, no movies. People played music to entertain themselves. And while composers knew that their work would be played by talented amateurs, they wrote for professional orchestras! They seldom made the parts any easier to accommodate less skilled musicians.
As the 19th century rolled forward into the 20th, composers worked harder and harder to provide exciting, stimulating scores. And that meant writing string parts that are harder to play. This is wonderful music, and conductors are right to want to program it — but amateur musicians struggle to play it. The string sound is often messy. A community orchestra that never played anything more challenging than Mozart could sound pretty darn good. But the conductor, the more talented players, and the audiences would soon get very bored.
If half of the community orchestras in the Bay Area simply folded, the rest would have better string players. And larger audiences, too. A better solution would be for all of those miserable second-rate string players to take some damn lessons and practice three hours a day. Not being God, however, I’m in no position to make that happen.