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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Orchestral players

The subject arose quite fortuitously over dinner with two conductors, one Swiss and one Danish, at an exquisite restaurant in a cobbled street close to St Peter's Cathedral in Geneva. We were talking about our families. I asked them both if their children played instruments. The son of one played the cello; the other was impressed by the progress of his daughter on the clarinet. So, I said cheerfully, 'they will both soon be in your orchestras!'

They laughed. 'Not a chance', they both agreed.

'Why not?'

'They are too bright', they said.

'But surely orchestral players are bright, alert, highly skilled operators, facing fresh challenges several times each week, and having, as a unique bonus, a passion for great music and the thrill of bringing it to life in glorious concert halls or in broadcasts and recordings?' It was clear by now that both considered me to be charmingly naive and, filling my wine glass, tried to bring me down to earth.

'Listen -- I have three orchestras and he has two. We both tour all over the world, guest conducting many other orchestras, and so we meet many hundreds of players. I tell you, most of them are really boring people, like my garage mechanic who is no longer interested in cars, stops work exactly at five, goes home to watch television, to football on Saturday, takes the caravan on holiday three times a year -- and nothing more.

'Orchestral players have played the music hundreds of times before, over and over again, and if it's new they don't like it. Often they don't remember what they have played and don't notice the title or composer at the top of the page. They just read the music -- and go home. Playing is a mechanical skill which they can do brilliantly without much thinking.

'And let's face it, so much of the music they play is tiresome stuff anyway. Some collect stamps or have other hobbies, which brightens their lives a little -- rarely is music one of them. But no. Our children are too interested in everything to be happy sitting in an orchestra for decades. They are excited to be in a really good youth orchestra concert two or three times a year. But for life? Never.'

Copyright © 18 July 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK



From: Shirley Ratcliffe, UK

I've enjoyed reading Patric Standford on orchestral players. Is he going to follow this with 'Who needs a conductor?' To all intents and purposes they would appear to be superfluous to an orchestral player's needs.

From: Christopher Small, Spain

Patric Standford's comments on orchestral musicians echo those which constitute Chapter 4 of my book Musicking (Wesleyan UP 1998). I also remember being told by a highly regarded orchestral bass player that he usually could not remember the bar he had just played. He was quite serious.

From: Frances Morrison, UK

I am amused to note that Patric Standford's conducting acquaintances condemn themselves out of their own mouths ... In general, conductors come by the orchestras and players they deserve, which begs the question -- if an orchestra is bored or unresponsive, whose fault is it ? The players' job is to play the notes, the conductor's job is to make them to do so in a manner of his or her choosing, but the ultimate responsibility for the outcome of a performance always lies with the conductor.

In my opinion the two most likely reasons for an orchestra to be bored or boring are that the conductor is unable to motivate them or that his/her musical ideas are not very interesting. Sorry, but the only conclusion I can draw is that both problem and responsibility lie squarely with the conductor. A less charitable person might say that any conductor who cannot motivate, inspire or enthuse his players is not sufficiently competent to be on the rostrum in the first place, but I couldn't possibly comment. However, I do know from personal experience that orchestras which play on 'auto-pilot' usually do so in order to protect their beloved music from the worst excesses of the person on the rostrum -- luckily, such conductors are rarely aware of just how little control they are exercising over their musicians and so do not often take offence.

I'd be very surprised if the conductors' comments were based on real knowledge or experience, for such is the way of the musical world that artistes (conductors and soloists) very rarely encounter the artisans of the orchestras and choruses except on the platform. Some artistes find it beneath their dignity to talk to the workers, others are prevented from doing so by acolytes who feel that it might harm their image -- the fact that it might increase the chances of a successful musical collaboration seems not to matter. And although the large salaries and secure contracts offered by many European orchestras may well encourage complacency, I have found that the overwhelming majority of my orchestral colleagues in Britain are both engaged and engaging and inform their playing with a wide range of outside interests.

Let me issue a challenge to the Swiss and Danish maestri in question -- the answer to my poser is widely known in orchestral circles but probably not much beyond them, so if they know as much about the orchestral world as they claim, they will be able to tell me which very well known international conductor always finishes rehearsals early if there is football on the television. Come on then, name that maestro ...

I would like to issue Patric Standford an open invitation to put down his composer's and journalist's pens and to come and spend some time amongst the professional orchestral fraternity. He will discover a group of hugely talented and dedicated people who make enormous sacrifices for their art, but who retain a strong sense of camaraderie and enthusiasm. I will be happy to arrange the necessary rehearsal and backstage passes for Mr Standford (and his friend John Gledhill if he so wishes) and I am sure that he will discover for himself that the comments of the gentlemen in Geneva are an unfortunate case of sour grapes.

Patric Standford replies:

I am intrigued by Frances Morrison who seems to have the advantage of knowing me better than I believe I know her! But the purpose of the Thoughts is to be Provocative, and this one certainly seems to have made her rise to it! I did not anywhere make my own personal comment on orchestral players, which was, and is, quite different from those Danish and Swiss colleagues. She must be aware that I have conducted and been well rewarded by excellent players, and as a composer have been privileged to have the sort of splendid performances both in UK and through Europe that have been generous in their support of me and my work. However, there are a great many orchestral session players who seem unrousable by even quite energetic conductors. And I have met chamber music players who got out of orchestras because they couldn't stand their colleagues' depressing tunnel vision! I shall be happy to take up the invitation, and interested to know which orchestra I would be taken to!




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