With orchestras, does age really matter?

Andrew MellorWed 11th January 2017

Does a long history give an orchestra particular weight, depth or colour? We’ll only know if those ensembles survive and flourish

Received wisdom dictates that an old orchestra is generally a good orchestra. When Gramophone compiled a subjective list of the world’s ten best symphonic ensembles in 2008, the violinist Nikolaj Znaider wrote of the ‘dark, wooden’ sound of the Dresden Staatskapelle and of that sound’s umbilical connection to the orchestra’s impressive lineage. The Staatskapelle, with roots stretching back to 1548, is one of the five oldest musical ensembles in the world.

But does Znaider’s assessment hold water in the cold light of day? Does age really count for anything in a time of increasing orchestral globalisation and spontaneity? That’s a fascinating question, not least given the extent to which priorities have shifted in the direction of the latter characteristic. These days, excellence in the orchestral field is more often qualified in terms of versatility, intuition and emotional honesty than in terms of overall ‘sound’. Some doubt that individual sonic fingerprints exist at all. ‘I don’t think there’s any such thing as a recognisable orchestral sound’, wrote the Berlin Philharmonic horn player Fergus McWilliam in that original Gramophone article.

Listening to Iván Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra – a relative baby, established in 1983 and positioned ninth in Gramophone’s top ten – posits a slightly different notion: that ‘sound’ might be defined as much by the way orchestral players listen to each other and move together as by the actual tonal qualities of the corporate noise they make. But then, might even Fischer’s ensemble have developed its own cast-iron tone colour in four centuries’ time? Perhaps. Some say it has already.

Listen blind to the Saito Kinen Orchestra – founded by Seiji Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama the year after the BFO – and you might think, particularly in Brahms, that the ensemble has been around for centuries. Why? Mostly because the Saito Kinen Orchestra has a certain depth, particularly in its string sections – a characteristic often associated with age.

The words ‘weight’ and ‘depth’ bob up time and again when you read critical appraisals of old (and, by association, ‘great’) orchestras. Given the Saito Kinen Orchestra’s relative youth, it’s little surprise that many, including Fergus McWilliam, have been sceptical when it comes to ideas of inherited orchestral timbre. There’s also a good deal of critical discrepancy when it comes to the complex issue of whether sonic weight, in particular, is a question of geography (with roots in central European performance practice and instrument manufacture) more than one of vintage.

I was a sceptic for some time too, and to some extent remain so. But in recent years, I’ve started to think there might be some truth in the old adage that a long heritage nurtures something deep, untouchable and indeed indescribable in an orchestra’s sound – or at least can. Most agree that the oldest orchestra in the world, the Dresden Staatskappelle’s senior by a century, is the so-called Royal Chapel in Copenhagen, known internationally as the Royal Danish Orchestra, whose constitution stretches way back to 1448.

Over the last few years, it’s been my overwhelming privilege to clock up some significant hours listening to this exquisite ensemble, and to mull over just what it might be that makes it sound so aristocratic, for want of a better word. The first thing that strikes you about the orchestra’s sound is – yes – its palpable weight, depth and power. But that can be explained, partly, by at least two rudimentary details: the helpful acoustic of the space it most often plays in, and the fact that the orchestra possesses some unusually fine string instruments. You might notice the latter, and more besides, in this video of Sir Simon Rattle conducting the ensemble in 2013.

Usually, the orchestra plays for the Royal Danish Opera and the Royal Danish Ballet. Perhaps that bread-and-butter pit work and the extreme repertoire versatility it engenders is what Gramophone’s Richard Bratby noticed when he heard the ensemble at Symphony Hall in Birmingham in 2015, citing its ‘irresistible sense of theatre’. But doesn’t that sense of theatre – just as in Fischer’s Budapest orchestra – come as much from musicians listening and reacting to one another (and to singers they can’t see) as from the whiff of greasepaint? ‘Experience in the opera house means the orchestra is able to form the smoothest transitions, the finest modulations of sound’, wrote the critic Wilhelm Sinkovicz about the Vienna Philharmonic in his appraisal for Gramophone’s poll. That is precisely what I hear from the Royal Danish Orchestra even when it’s playing symphonic repertoire.

I can’t say whether the Copenhagen orchestra deserved a place in Gramophone’s top ten but nor does that invalidate my personal opinion that its qualities make it thrillingly unique. If it were a building it would deserve World Heritage status. The fact that it’s a living, breathing, evolving organism comprised of human beings only makes its wondrous qualities more miraculous. Yes, you can explain certain elements of its sound with recourse to equipment, talent and conditions. But that feeling of weight and depth – of experience, perhaps – surely has something to do with Znaider’s ideas of longevity.

The discussion is a timely one. The Royal Danish Orchestra is currently facing decimation due to yet another round of budget cuts at its parent company, the Danish Royal Theatre (some orchestra members maintain the cuts to permanent personnel are being implemented without due consideration of other options). Without getting embroiled in those details, the situation raises a purely musical question: would the world’s oldest orchestra retain its distinct, indefinable characteristics if a significant proportion of its musicians were part-time or hired-in for one-off projects?

Of course, it’s lamentably sad that we should even be considering the prospect of finding out. It’s also painfully obvious that most of the characteristics described above are dependent on musicians working together every day and developing intuition. Speaking more clinically, significant constitutional change to any historic ensemble would rob us of the chance to examine the ever-fascinating riddle of orchestral sound and heritage even further: to discover how our oldest orchestras have yet to develop; how their centuries of truth and experience will or won’t stand up against the freshness and excitability of orchestral newcomers. For that reason alone, the architects of any longstanding ensemble’s deconstruction must stop to consider the impact of their actions not just on civic life, but on our planet’s cultural heritage.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is a Gramophone reviewer and freelance journalist - he writes widely on opera, classical music and Nordic culture for magazines, newspapers, orchestras and opera companies in the UK and in Denmark, Finland and Norway

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