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Unsportsmanlike Conduct?
2 Mar 2011
Inside the Classics

Well, our Carnegie Hall concert is officially in the books (generally favorable reviews here and here, a really interesting read here, and one I can’t make heads or tails of here.) Most of the orchestra is already back in Minneapolis, but I’m spending the next few days staying with a friend on the Upper West Side and shadowing Judd as he prepares and performs one of the biggest concerts of his season with fellow composer/performer Olga Bell and Judd’s new ensemble, The Yehudim.

Matter of fact, I’m just back from Judd’s apartment in Brooklyn, where we spent an hour or so chatting about the ever-evolving world of composers, the importance (and drawbacks) of megacities like New York for musicians interested in moving the profession forward, and the social aspect of live performance versus the solitary activity of listening to recorded music. I’ll be breaking that conversation down into manageable chunks over the next couple of weeks, and we’ll have it for you here on the blog in either audio or video form by the time we play our next Inside the Classics concerts.

(By the way, if you have an opinion on the audio vs. video thing, please chime in in the comments and let us know. When I do longer-form conversations with someone, do you prefer to hear it as just audio, or do you like having a visual component to the interview as well, the way we did with Janet Horvath a few weeks back?)

One of the topics I threw out while Judd and I were talking was my belief that there came a point, some decades ago, when the classical music world decided collectively that what we do is Great Art, and therefore Not Fun, and everyone should treat our performances with the utmost reverence and seriousness, like handling a sacred text. You can tell by the way I phrased it that I do not consider this to have been a positive development for our industry – in fact, I blame a lot of the perception of stuffiness and elitism that surrounds orchestras on it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few days, ever since an uncommonly harsh review of a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert appeared in the Boston Herald. The back story here is that James Levine, the BSO’s superstar music director, is too ill or injured to conduct them – yes, again, and this time it may be the end it’s come to a permanent parting of the ways – and so last week, young BSO assistant conductor Sean Newhouse was asked to grab the reins at a moment’s notice and conduct Mahler’s  sprawling 9th symphony. According to the Herald‘s Keith Powers, it didn’t go terribly well, but Powers reserved the bulk of his ire for members of the orchestra who he felt left the kid in the lurch. In particular, he felt that the violinists crossed a deadly serious line:

Most disturbing — bordering on the unprofessional — was what appeared to be some inside joke running through the violin section. Backward glances, grins and sniggering have no place in junior high classrooms, let alone onstage during performance. With a young conductor leading a challenging work, at least the appearance of engaged playing must be maintained.

Now, I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened, and I wouldn’t care to speculate. A lot can go wrong when a young conductor is asked to step in at the last minute, and it can be frustrating for everyone. But the use of terms like “sniggering,” combined with the fact that Boston’s other daily paper says that the BSO “played beautifully for [Newhouse]” and makes no mention of any misbehavior makes me wonder whether this isn’t a case of that No Fun In The Concert Hall attitude rearing its ugly head.

I’ve grinned at colleagues mid-performance more times than I can count, sometimes because of an inside joke from rehearsal, sometimes just because we’re having a good time, and I defy anyone to tell me that doing so detracts from the live performance experience. If anything, doesn’t such intra-orchestra communication indicate a far greater level of “engagement,” to use Powers’ term, than the stereotypical stone-faced orchestra musician who plays even the lightest of scherzos with a look of deathly disinterest?

Musicians in every ensemble save the symphony orchestra are expected to show their enthusiasm and sense of humor on stage. Jazz musicians regularly talk to each other between solos, shoot each other glances, laugh, even shout encouragement to their bandmates. But somehow, we’re expected to just sit blankly while performing, no matter what.

I’m sorry, but it’s silly. Music is fun. Playing music is fun. Yes, it can also be exciting, rapturous, insert your favorite adjective here. But if you’re so far inside your own head about the notes being played that you can be uprooted by a couple of the performers shooting each other a smirk, you’re probably better off staying at home with your record collection.

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