Saturday, July 23, 2005

News commentary

This past week brought some interesting news relating to music and specifically to life in orchestras. First there was an unusual announcement from a conductor that she expected to be nominated as a music director of a major orchestra (Baltimore), followed by very critical response by players of said group, and still to come the official hiring of this maestro. While I refuse to comment on her capabilities, it is obvious that opinions have been very split, especially among musicians. May this serve as a wake-up call to orchestra players that no matter what illusions they have, their opinion doesn’t really count in management’s view. Especially in this country, although formally a non-profit organization, an orchestra is often run just as heartlessly as a big corporation. Almost 15,000 people are losing their jobs at Hewlett-Packard and no one blinks an eye. Orchestra members may like to think of themselves as artists who deserve special treatment, but in truth are like any other workers. I wish Ms. Alsop and her new orchestra all the best. There was a good comment in a NY Times article by one of the players: “Most of the great orchestras make any conductor sound good. That's what we try to do.”

Just a couple days ago another interesting story surfaced. A young violinist is suing the NY Philharmonic for not granting him tenure in the second violin section, while giving several women a permanent position at the same time. Although several people try to downplay the seriousness of ‘reverse sex discrimination’, there may be some truth behind the accusation. A man cannot easily wear a Wonderbra or get his wardrobe from Frederick’s of Hollywood, to seem more pleasing to someone who has the power to decide on a person’s career. Also, a young woman is less likely to react to less-than-ideal playing around her than a young man, especially if he comes with an ego. Obviously this man has talent, based on his reported success, but that can never be as noticeable as one’s looks, unless he’s heard in recital or as a soloist. The great French violinist Ginette Neveu was supposed to have been quite the opposite of eye candy, but people stopped snickering as soon as she started to play. Often what is visible to the outside, is far from the whole truth.

There is an excellent interview/article of James Levine in this month’s Opera News, by Paul Driscoll. In it the maestro says: “There’s another thing that I don’t do that I notice a lot of people wish I did. I don’t believe in talking about any artist who’s having a problem while they’re having it. It’s the kiss of death. It is when an artist is going through a bad patch that I am most determined to support them. You can make critical progress only when they’re well and resilient. But you can’t in that other state. If I’m conducting my orchestra and I can tell by the way someone’s acting that they’re in trouble, they do not get a critique from me that day. They get it when they start to look right again. If you want people to work hard on the musical difficulties, then a rehearsal room has to be a safe haven, a constructive atmosphere concentrated on music. This business about shouting and making a player miserable over something that he would be doing better if he could at that moment is just silly. It creates tension that is anti-artistic and unproductive. You can call someone in for a meeting and have a perfectly sensible interchange.”

What a wise attitude. No wonder there is such excitement in Boston and Tanglewood, according to press and musicians. Although Levine is criticized by some for conducting in a ‘minimalist’ manner, what could be better than making an orchestra play chamber music at all times and every member listen to each other constantly? Of course the circumstances have to be optimal and musicians able to hear one another, in order for this to succeed. Music is meant for the ears, after all, not the eyes.