Last week I had a longish conversation with the fellow who will be the new principal cellist this fall for the Livermore Symphony. He’s a much better cellist than I am — to the point where he’s lowering himself a bit to play with the group at all. I’m very happy that he wants to join the group, and I want to support him in whatever way I can. I feel a bit passionate about local community music-making.

During my tenure as principal cellist, I was in the habit of actively providing support for the cello section in the form of weekly emails, suggested fingerings, and even informal sectional rehearsals held in my home. I had, accordingly, sent the new guy an email with a number of questions and suggestions. During our conversation, however, he made it pretty clear (in a friendly way) that he intends to run things his own way. He has specific ideas about how things are to be done in an orchestra — and of course that’s his prerogative as the new section leader. As a result, there’s really nothing for me to do beyond practicing the parts, showing up at rehearsal, and what I call playing the dots. Or dots and squiggles, I suppose, though you’re not supposed to play during the squiggles.

In the course of the conversation, he said, “An orchestra is not a democracy.” His point was, he will be making the decisions for the cello section, in consultation with the concertmaster and, when necessary, the conductor. But as I’ve mulled over the new situation, a subversive thought crept into my mind: Why isn’t an orchestra a democracy? What would it look like if it were a democracy?

It seems to me that many of the ills from which, as an institution, symphonic music suffers may be owing to the fact that an orchestra isn’t a democracy.

The first and most glaring of the ills is that symphonic music is in no sense a creative activity. At best, as an orchestral musician you’re a foot soldier, marching in formation and following orders. At worst you’re a zombie, lurching through hostile terrain and hoping your fingers don’t fall off.

The conductor has some limited creative autonomy, in that she can choose and then tell us how to interpret the music, but the rest of the musicians do nothing but show up and play the dots and squiggles. We have no scope for creative involvement — none. Or, to be absolutely honest, vanishingly close to none; I did in fact attend meetings last winter of the repertoire committee, a volunteer group that any of the musicians can show up for if they want to. At these meetings, the conductor presents a list of possible pieces, and we comment on the list and kick around other ideas while the conductor takes notes. Ultimately, though, she puts together the programs for the season from her short list.

I did object to one piece on her list — Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” better known to fans of Fifties novelty pop as “Hello Mudda, hello Fadda, here I am at Camp Granada.” There was general agreement that that was not a great piece, so the conductor crossed it off the list. That was democracy, of a sort. But other than that, I had no perceptible influence. I kept saying, “Beethoven Sixth, Beethoven Sixth! Or how about Mozart 35?” I might as well have wandered over to the snacks table and munched on Audrey’s very nice brownies. I would have accomplished just as much.

What would a creative, democratic symphony orchestra look like? Well, most of the players don’t improvise, but a few of us do. Shouldn’t musicians who improvise have an opportunity to play a solo here or there during a concert? Or to add improvised ornaments to a written part, if we feel moved to do so?

And what about the repertoire list for the season? Shouldn’t we all get to vote on what we want to play?

What if we don’t want to wear Concert Black attire in the future? I certainly don’t. Wearing black is a holdover from the 19th century. It stinks of aristocracy, and it has no place in a 21st century concert. Shouldn’t the choice of attire be the musicians’ decision?

There may be two or three musicians in the orchestra who have written, or could write, original orchestral scores. Assuming the composer has the ability to produce a playable score and print out parts, shouldn’t the orchestra have the opportunity to play through a colleague’s piece a couple of times and then vote on whether they like it enough to include it in a program? If there aren’t any composers in the orchestra, or even if there are, shouldn’t composers in nearby cities have the same opportunity?

Why is it that after we perform a piece once, it can’t be scheduled again for five or six years? Who makes these decisions? If the orchestra loves a piece, shouldn’t we be able to vote to play it again next year? Bands playing in clubs always repeat their repertoire — they play pretty much the same set at every gig. Why should an orchestra’s programs always have to be changing?

What if a piece is too hard? Shouldn’t the musicians be able to vote to drop it and substitute something else? Or — here’s a radical thought — how about simplifying a daunting piece so as to make it playable by amateurs? Why do we have to play (or attempt to play) every note exactly as written? If it sounds like crap (as the terrifying passages sometimes do), what’s the point of tormenting ourselves trying to fight our way through it? Or what if we do want to play a very tough piece, but need extra rehearsals in order to bring it off? Why is there no discussion of that possibility?

In the past, I’ve agitated for an extra rehearsal, to no effect. I’ve also made specific suggestions to the cello section about how to simplify an impossible part. But no more. At this point, it’s up to the new principal to try to coax an excellent sound out of a group of unpaid amateurs.

The word “unpaid” is significant. If the musicians were being paid, even at a modest (non-union) level, it would be natural that the people writing the checks would make the decisions. But no, this is an all-volunteer group. The folks in the audience shell out money for tickets, but except for the conductor and the concertmaster, the people onstage are working for free.

Some of my ideas about a democratic orchestra might need to be tinkered with in order to be workable. I’m wingin’ it here. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: None of them will ever see the light of day, not in the Livermore Symphony and not in any other orchestra either. Democratic processes are incompatible with the very nature of the symphony orchestra. The symphony is a hierarchical institution that was born in the 18th century, when the king was an absolute monarch appointed by God, and came to fruition in the 19th century during the industrial revolution, when the assembly line was God.

Today, we play the music of dead white guys, most of them European, while wearing clothing that would have been appropriate evening attire for upper-class gentlemen in the 1890s. (As a side note, there were no women in orchestras in the 1890s, except for possibly the harpist. The women in the audience would have been dressed far more elegantly than the women in today’s orchestras, who have more choices than the men — skirt or trousers, long sleeves or short? — but are expected to wear black.)

If you have other ideas about concert attire or anything else, nobody cares. Sit down and be quiet. Play the dots.

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5 thoughts on “Symphony Jam

  1. I like this piece and it’s concept. As you know I’m a listener. I refrained from saying “just” because the listener is as much a part of the orchestra as the musicians and the composer and all the rest. No point without me. Artistic masturbation for all purposes, practical and not.

    I, as the listener, with no formal training beyond grade school rhythm group (you mentioned in a previous post) and almost a year of saxophone in third grade, which I dropped because it was boring and far too disciplined for the likes of me, consider film scores as the child of Nineteenth Century “classical” music (which was the pop music d’jour in contrast to folk music). So Danny Elfman and Phillip Glass become the neo Schoenbergs and Mahlers. I’m probably full of crap but I see the direct like to those two and Korngold and think…. Then I see the folk music in classical and the classical in film scores and I think….

    So why not a democratic orchestra. If you’d had this idea in 1967 or even 1977 or so I bet you could have pulled it off in Santa Cruz at least. Community and expression were the watchwords among certain groups. Maybe even possible in Livermore in those heady days as the sixties turned into the reactionary seventies except in some rather small communities scattered about. Where those that chose to continue to buck the “logical trend” (Richard and Mimi Farina, Sell-Out Agitation Waltz: “The teachers say you gotta stay
    In school just another day
    And study the logical trend”) scattered to.

    Maybe a democratic orchestra would be a bit more difficult today and maybe not possible at all in Livermore. I sold out so I don’t have a clue as to where this could happen.

    History question for you. Big bands were all the rage during the depression and after. Of course the famous ones were working and made money. But what about the wannabes? Where there community orchestra quality musicians (you’ve complained about the poor quality of musicianship in the Livermore Symphony before) just playing in small venues as big bands for pennies? Or even just getting together to play together? And symphonic orchestras. There has never been a simple leap from high school band to Berlin Philharmonic has there?

    Remember that Big Brother and the Holding Company, even before Janis, played Grieg (In the Hall of the Mountain King) as a signature piece, no matter how poorly, and with guitars. Nevertheless they jammed it. I’d really like to hear a symphony orchestra take Beethoven and play with his work. First movement of the Fifth is essentially a jam. I bet he’d love to see a full orchestra play different interpretations of those four notes.

    Last thing. Weren’t there lots of thirties cartoons that did just that; jazzify classical music? In short, make it contemporary for the times?

    Interesting concept.

    1. I’m not an expert on the history of big bands, but I can offer a couple of footnotes. Big band music was the dance music of the era. People did sometimes dance to the radio or the phonograph (in parties at home), but if they went out for the evening, there would be a local band in the night club.

      I had forgotten about them playing “Hall of the Mountain King.” I never heard them live, actually. Adaptations of classical music by rock or pop bands are not always good — a lot depends on the spirit with which the arrangement is worked out.

      The first movement of the fifth symphony is emotionally a jam, but of course every note is written out. There is, however, a moment in the latter part of the movement where the orchestra holds a chord and the oboe plays a little free-time solo. That would absolutely be a moment for improvisation. In the 18th century soloists who were playing concertos with orchestra quite often improvised during the cadenza, but by the 19th century written-out cadenzas had become the norm, partly because improvisation was becoming a lost art. Beethoven himself certainly improvised, but he was also a control freak — he didn’t want anybody else improvising with his music.

  2. Thanks for an interesting piece, Jim. And you are right, there is not a lot of room for creativity in today’s symphonic orchestra. That is not to say there is no room for creativity in classical music. The most one could get out of orchestra is how to creatively shape a phrase. And that is left to the solo instruments, of which one is my instrument. 🙂 But I think one needs to step away from the orchestral setting to find more. Think chamber music!

    I have begin studying Arabic music in order to open up the creative side of my musical brain. (Jazz would probably do it as well.) Arabic is similar to western classical in that it has a deep theory component, so there are rules to follow in one’s creativity. It’s an exciting ‘venue’ for me to expand that part of my brain – I’m loving it!

    1. If I had a good quartet to play with, that would be a very different thing. We could pick our own repertoire and work out our own interpretations, democratically. The opportunities for shaping a solo line in the string section are nil, but even if you’re a wind player you’re subject to the whims of the conductor.

      I’ve never looked into Arabian or any type of Middle Eastern music. I’m sure it’s fascinating … especially for double reed instruments!

      1. Actually Opal was not particularly satisfying in the Arab music ensemble because of the difficulty of nailing quarter tones. And it is not a traditional instrument in the group anyway. I am playing an instrument called a qanun – a kind of Arabic zither. It’s a great challenge to take up a totally new instrument at this point. I just got back from a week of playing Arabic music back in Massachusetts that included lessons, chamber music, and an ‘orchestra’.

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