Thursday, April 16, 2009


I'm not sure if I had heard the expression "to make someone redundant" before a few weeks ago. Here is an example from the British show "The Office":

"Don't make me redundant, please. I've changed my mind, I don't want redundancy, I don't want that. And I haven't signed anything, so..." As funny and as tragic as that scene is, I think we've all known someone who has been "made redundant" recently, without any choice (except perhaps whether they'll stay through the party on Friday or not.)

As a (thankfully still employed) member of an orchestra string section, I think I'm a bit redundant to begin with. That's part of our job description, in fact: most of the time I play the same part as 5 other people, and the closer we get to duplicating the same rendition, the better we've done our job. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions and reasons why six bass players is the bare minimum for an orchestra of the CPO's size. Still, it makes me a bit leery that some human resource manager is going to walk into a rehearsal one day, look at all the people doing the same work, and decide to make us redundant permanently.

This actually happened while I was with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony's training orchestra. It was in 2001, right after the "dot com bubble" had burst, and the administration decided that all the string sections would be cut down. The bass section went from 8 to 6, while the violin sections were each reduced by a couple of stands. It happened between seasons, so no one had to be taken into the little room like David Brent -- nevertheless, it was a blow to everyone's morale, and to the orchestra's quality.

The euphemism in the orchestra is "reduction", when some are asked not to play. Normally, this will only happen in cases of severe balance problems. More players will not necessarily make the orchestra sound louder, since we can play just about inaudibly if asked. If a solo voice or instrumentalist is consistently being drowned out, though, it's silly to have everyone on stage playing at a whisper. And sometimes, there is just not enough rehearsal time to make all of the necessary adjustments, and so the orchestra is reduced as a time-saving measure.

I think what's lost is pretty significant -- the depth and character of an orchestra is not the same with half the players, even if they play brilliantly. It's much easier for a singer to project over a reduced orchestra, but the cushion of sound that supports the voice is made thinner, more meager sounding. The sound of many players at their ultimate limit of softness is one of the wonders of an orchestra, an effect just as thrilling as an orchestra playing at its maximum dynamic. When I'm reduced off an aria, I often find myself thinking what only David Brent would have the courage to say: "Please, don't make me redundant!"

Monday, April 13, 2009

classical music's brave, hip new world

Greg Sandow has seen the future of classical music, and it's a sophisticated mishmash of "baroque/techno/grime/classical/avant-garde," playing at trendy clubs. He writes about it in a recent Wall Street Journal article:
So there I was not long ago at Le Poisson Rouge, a New York club, for a classical-music show, and the guy in the DJ booth was telling all of us to "talk and clap when you like. And go to the bar if you get bored."
He goes on to describe the audience, the atmosphere, and the music: "everything was strong and savvy, and much of it was purely classical, inhabiting indie pop territory in its DNA without showing any signs of that externally. A lot of it was gently dissonant, and sometimes roughly dissonant, often surprising, always cogent and thoughtful." It seems to have been a brilliant success, marred only by the excessive length, over three hours. If the New York Phil or Carnegie Hall would just loosen up and hold this type of show, Sandow speculates, they "might attract 1,000 newcomers" to a concert of obscure experimental music.

It's an exciting idea, and it certainly wouldn't be the first time that classical music has ridden the coat-tails of a popular music scene to achieve its own goals. At the New World Symphony, I frequently shared a stand (and briefly, an apartment wall) with Matt W., a bass player who was also a club DJ. I would joke that in 20 years, while most of us would be struggling to make ends meet with low-paying orchestra jobs, Matt would be principal DJ with the New York Philharmonic, spinning remixes every night of Mahler symphonies and Debussy tone poems.

For now though, I'm still a bit nonplussed by the trend. This might be because I personally don't go to clubs, and so the etiquette there -- the protocol of what to do and say, how to behave, when to applaud or shout or just chill -- is as mystifying to me as a symphony concert for the uninitiated. Even if I am curious about the music and the performers, I'd rather hear them in a setting where I'm comfortable.

Being told to talk, clap, or grab a drink if it suits my mood, seems like too many choices for me -- I'd rather just enjoy the music, without all the social dimensions. That would seem to be the one choice you're not given at these concerts, since other audience members are sure to char, mill around, or maybe even to "get rowdy" as one performer instructed the crowd.

Or are they? Sandow describes another concert at the same club: "Earlier this year I heard Messiaen's austere Quartet for the End of Time on a bill with two ambient electronic pop acts. The crowd -- many of whom wouldn't even have known who Messiaen was -- sat in rapt silence, and roared their approval at the end." That sounds a lot like the classical music audiences I'm used to at conventional, un-hip classical chamber music concerts: respectful, attentive, but quite enthusiastic. Maybe as performers, we get the audiences we deserve -- and as audiences, we get the musical performance we deserve, no matter how hip the setting and scene.

Read Greg Sandow's article here: "A Young, Hip, Classical Crowd"