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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

The orchestra


The so-called modern symphony orchestra was not even very modern a century ago. It was a remarkable late 18th century phenomenon that flourished during the 19th century, by the end of which many inspired composers and a number of egocentric non-composers who had appointed themselves conductors, brought these mechanical bodies of musicians to a successful maturity.

Throughout the 20th century the orchestra has been the vehicle, not of the composer, but of the conductor. Its survival has been largely the result of an increasingly obsessive reiteration of a core repertoire drawn from the works of a few 19th century composers, predominantly though not exclusively German, and the positive effect this persistence has had on the public appetite for a classic sound ambience and its heroic evangelists. But the resources needed to support this indulgence are running thin. Many orchestras are near bankruptcy and the recording companies, our equivalent of 18th century patrons, are too near catalogue saturation to be interested in further investment. They prefer to market the classics on a more glossy superficial level; the profound conductor and seriously dutiful players are a thing of the past. It is hard on the many orchestral musicians who will face redundancy, and on the many more training in our conservatories for a profession that survives only on an extravagant life-support systems.

The young are not quite as obedient as they were. Whilst some students may regard an orchestra as a cocoon within which they have no need to cultivate individuality, there are many for whom constant repetition without joy is an anathema. They would prefer to make their own decisions, turning perhaps to chamber music. But is there a market for chamber musicians either? The orchestra is now an outmoded form of synchronised team entertainment the economic sustaining of which cannot be justified by cultural value. What is called its standard repertoire no longer has any significant impact on us, and nothing of importance has been added to it for half a century. The orchestra is no longer a rare or remarkable phenomenon; the last of its excited young audiences is now in its dotage; youth is on the platform; the audience is grey and fading!


Copyright © 18 October 2001 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: Mark Ward Donaldson, Wilmington, NC, USA

Your comments about the demise of the so-called 'modern orchestra' really disturbed me, probably because it's so true. I sometimes feel we've taken music as far as it can go. This is truly a sad state, to be certain. Perhaps it is modern music (read 'atonal') that is hastening its demise. Of course, I can't be objective because I detest modern music so much.

I've always had this fantasy of writing the next Pathetique symphony or becoming the next Celibidache, but I'm not that gifted. But even if I was, who nowadays would even listen or watch me conduct? Perhaps it's the 'dumbing-down' of great music ... who can say? But it is sad to see. Well, now that I am thoroughly depressed, what can the average listener like myself do about it, if anything?

From: Stephen Bennett, Sweden

You are quite right of course. As is/was Norman Lebrecht. I am an international soloist but have also performed in orchestras throughout the world as a member of the orchestra. My 250 page whatever (book?) entitled THE AUDITION, problems and solutions ... lays out and exposes the ridiculous system and method of the musical equivalent of the job interview.

The audition is the only job interview in the world (that I know of) that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the job. Yes, the audition only proves the facts of the death of the orchestra. Although I still do auditions today because of my finely honed sense of masochism, I would not join an orchestra that would have me as a member ...

From: Robert Berger, USA

The recent editorial about the supposed demise and loss of relevance of the orchestra could not be further off the mark. Orchestras today play an extraordinarily wide variety of repertoire, ranging from Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, to the latest works by living composers. There is no lack of great conductors today, and standards of performance have never been higher. It has never been more worthwhile to attend concerts. It is not true that no important music has been written in the past 50 years, in fact much great music has been written.



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