"How marvelous just to go out and play," muses trombonist Raymond Fremu of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He is quoting that many-headed beast, the public, and he feels a need to correct the common impression of what it means to 'play' implies the antithesis to 'work.' We don't just 'play', we work and work in order to be able to play."
The world and the work of orchestral musicians are unique. Sociologically, they are skilled technicians, members of a labor union who draw wages established by collective bargaining for services performed during regularly scheduled working hours, with the usual provisions for vacation, sick leave, overtime and retirement. Professionally, they are part of a structure that orginated in the age of despotism and still reflects its orgins. sSome orchestras, like the London Symphony, now elect their own conductors -- but as soon as he raises his baton (his sceptre), the conductor is a despot as absolute and powerful, in his small kingdom, as Frederick the Great was in Prussia.
The sometimes unruly subjects of this kingdom are paid to produce beauty on demand, and years of highly specialized training are required before they can do the job properly. They tend to be highly individualistic persons -- many began their careers with dreams of being another Heifetz or Rampal -- and their lives have the special glamor that is attached to performers in a kind of show business.
But with few exceptions (mostly section leaders and the highly visible, spectacularly audible percussionists) these individuals spend their public lives merged into an indistinguishable mass -- "those remote, formal figures on the distant stage." Whatever their temerament or technical ability (and some are close to the Heifetz class,) they must accept a collective identity and spend their professional lives following the will of a man whom they may or may not respect, coordinating their work with that of 100 others whom they may or may not be able to hear.
In "Orchestra," the usually anonymous members of this submerged mass raise their voices rather than their instruments, with results that are sometimes discordant but, for those who love the unique art of the orchestra, as exciting as the climax of a Mahler or Shostakovich symphony. Michael Foss has conducted deep-probing interviews with 31 players from two dozen orchestras (mostly American and British) and their reflections are arranged in sections that cover a variety of topics: how they began, their economic problems, the special challenges of various instruments, non-orchestral musical interests, the personalities of various orchestras, joys and frustrations, and what they think about conductors.
The comments are intelligent, pungent and revealing, and they give the book a depth and value far beyond what its cover promises. Glance at it or leaf through its excellent photographs idly and this may seem to be another picture book about the glamor and glitter of it all. Instead, it is a unique, inside view of an art that is one of the most notable achievements of Western culture.
"The world of the ace conductor and the world of the pop star are not so far apart," says Gary Kettel, who plays (what's in a name?) the kettle drums . . . . People have been brainwashed into this adulation. Some huge publicity machine suports these men." Trumpeter Bill Lang tells an old story of a player's conversation in a pub after a concert: "Good concert tonight, Joe?" "Yes, not bad, not bad." "Who was conducting?" "Do you know I couldn't say. I never looked."
Alan Civil, who is a Paganini of the French horn, believes in "giving conductors a chance, but very few of them seem to know the job. Now, they learn their works on orchestras, blatantly. There must be a first time for everyone, but that first time should be in a modest beginning, in an apprenticeship."
But conductors are only part of the problem. There are colleagues who don't pull their weight ("every orchestra has passengers"), audiences that "just want the big, spectacular pieces" and treat a concert as "a social event," and difficult, precise work that simply goes unnoticed ("Poor old second bassoon, he never has a chance to shine"). For some players, there are instruments that make enormous physical demands ("Any brass instrument, over a long period, really becomes an athletic endeavor"), and for orchestras as a whole there are problems of collective personality.
The comments are what a good orchestrral performance should be -- balanced in tone, precise in detail, articulate and impassioned, covering a broad emotional range and orchestrated by the interviewer so that the complex events produce a unified effect. But it also has an element of intimacy, of personal involvement and carefully considered interchange that are the hallmarks of good chamber music. Those who wonders what it is like backstage in a concert hall will find their questions answered in this volume.