On Regional Orchestras and Live Music

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A reaction in the Noble Viola site to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Zero Option: Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?” caught my attention this morning as it hits rather close to home for many of our readers. Speaking of what they call “third-tier” orchestras specifically Terry Teachout reports that,

Their primary historic function has been rendered obsolete by technology, in much the same way that many of the historic functions of regional newspapers have been usurped by the web. You don’t have to buy a ticket to the Podunk Philharmonic to hear Beethoven’s Seventh any more than you have to buy the Podunk Times to figure out what movie to see on Saturday night.

The starting point for the article has to do with the troubles of the Pasadena Symphony, and in the previous paragraph the writer noted in relation to regional orchestras that

Most, after all, offer a predictable mix of ultrafamiliar classics and soufflé-light pops programs. If I lived in a city with such an orchestra, would I attend its concerts? A century ago I would have said yes, because live performances were the only way to hear music you didn’t make yourself. But downloading and the iPod have made it possible to hear great music whenever and wherever you want. Is there any point in going to hear a pretty good live performance of a chestnut like Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations” or the Schumann Piano Concerto, all of which figure prominently on Pasadena’s five subscription programs for the 2010-11 season? For a fast-growing number of Americans, the answer is no.

The Noble Viola took exception to much of this, with the following being his final statement on the topic of lower level orchestras:

Third rate, I don’t really know what that means, but often they give performances that might be a bit below world-class technically, but often are full of spirit that many major groups are unable to muster week in and week out. When you play one or two concerts every three months, you tend to appreciate it more than if it’s just another week with different music on the stand and and [sic] different stick waver on the podium.

Another reaction to this article appeared at OregonLive.com which Bruce Hembd posted to Facebook. There it is noted by David Stabler that

I think Teachout underplays the importance of experiencing live music.

Hearing and watching the “Resurrection” unfold in the presence of an enormous orchestra, a large choir, vocal soloists and seatmates all around me makes the listening experience immediate and communal. I am caught up in the music differently from how I get caught up with music on headphones. In the concert hall, I witness the physical unfolding of it, the effort to produce the notes, the rhythmic beat of the conductor, the tension of executing it well. Live listening is how Mahler intended his music to be received.

Not all music today is written for communal consumption (video games, for example), but most concert music is.

No matter how fine a recording, I am always aware that it is an artificial medium, a relay from the original “signal.” The effort of execution is absent, the tension of whether the trumpet will nail the solos is gone.

Myself, the thing is there is and will always be a difference between the sound of an orchestra on an iPod and the sound of an orchestra in a live hall. This is a point that can’t be made too often; in a hall things sound much different than over speakers of any type, and what we accept as good audio sound has actually gone down in recent years. Think of a big Mahler symphony, the loud peaks and the quiet valleys in the music. We know these as performers, and they simply cannot be reproduced to full effect on the best speakers not to mention on a much more limited system such as an iPod with ear bud speakers and MP3 files.

The sad part though is that it seems that many listeners today perhaps can’t hear that difference or at least accept that difference willingly for the sake of convenience, even though they could easily recognize the difference between looking at a photo in a book of a piece of fine art and looking at the original in a museum.

What is the solution? For sure this will be a tough, ongoing problem for every musician in the coming years but above all we have to spread the word to hear live music and experience the full range of orchestral dynamics in a great acoustic. It is very different than the iPod experience.

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