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.