Bows

Community orchestras are a semi-wonderful thing. Over the past 15 years I’ve played in four or five of them at different times. Served as principal cellist in a couple.

After tonight’s concert, I think I may be done.

Not because it was a bad concert. It was a pretty darn good concert, actually. Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, and a solid piece by a local composer. The orchestra did a very respectable job. The audience obviously appreciated what they heard, and that’s one of the wonderful aspects: For a mere $20, people can hear a symphony concert close to their home.

Most of the musicians in community orchestras are unpaid amateurs. We do it because we enjoy it.

The biggest drawback of playing in an orchestra — any orchestra, no matter how good — is that it’s not a creative activity. You’re a foot soldier. Somebody else decides what you’ll play. You’re told how fast to play, and how loud. Somebody puts a page full of dots in front of you (more like 30 pages, actually), and your job is to execute the dots.

In a community orchestra, there are other issues. There’s never enough rehearsal time, and the quality of the players is somewhat variable. As a result, the orchestra never sounds as good as I wish it did.

On top of which, those darn composers take it for granted their work will be played by conservatory-trained professionals who can do absolutely anything. Typically, there are a few passages in any concert that are simply too tough for me. (The fact that the conductor generally insists on taking the difficult movements at a breakneck tempo does not help.) I don’t like getting up on stage in front of a bunch of people who are paying money for their tickets, and failing to play some of the notes. It bothers me. Usually the tricky passages are at the most dramatic moments, so the fumbling in the strings is covered by fortissimo brass. But not always.

Yes, I’ve had some pleasant musical experiences along the way. I’ve played Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh, the Brahms Fourth, Sibelius Second, double concertos by Bach and Brahms, and various other rewarding pieces. Also, there’s something satisfying about doing your best with a challenging part.

On the other hand, it’s time-consuming, it’s never entirely satisfying, I come home exhausted, and I have nothing to show for it. Also, they make you wear a black suit and a bow tie, and what’s up with that?

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