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!"

No comments: