How orchestras look does matter

Andrew MellorThu 24th January 2013

Max Hole paints a pessimistic picture of orchestral concerts but he’s right to cite the problems on stage

Universal Music chairman Max Hole has told the Association of British Orchestras Conference that orchestras are behind the times and concerts are frustratingly dull – in a visual sense at least. Cue the expected torrent of ‘you don’t get its’ from an industry that would prefer to see itself wither and die than look long and hard at what it does very poorly indeed.

One thing it does poorly too often is on-stage presentation. Thankfully I can look past the ill-fitting 19th-century waiter uniforms and enjoy the performance for what it is musically. But at classical concerts, I’m not a normal person: I’m a regular, an insider and an obsessive. Research tells us that a good number of people attend orchestral concerts once every few years. There’s a good chance it takes that ‘few year’ gap for them to forget the fact that the experience wasn’t all that overwhelming.

A few weeks ago I sat in a London orchestral concert and the person I was with – not a regular concertgoer – found the experience depressing. Not because she didn’t hear music she loved being performed well, but because the musicians looked a ‘mess’ on stage and oozed a general air of not giving a damn. Being there for the music, I hadn’t really noticed until she pointed it out: 40 shades of black (the bright lights cruelly exposing the textile discord), many of the mens’ tails ill-fitting and creased, and female players that seemed to think it was permissible to wear the first thing they found in the wardrobe that was dark enough to pass for the colour. These people are sat on stage in front of 3000 paying guests. Sorry, but not looking either smart or stylish simply isn’t good enough.

It’s not so much about the style of dress itself – though you have to wonder why most conductors have mutually chosen to dress as Bond villains these days and what effect that has on their perception among the wider public – as it is about executing your chosen dress code well. Tails should fit, fabric should be clean and not creased, and a general attempt should be made to advise female players on the tone a particular ensemble would like to adopt (though most orchestras haven’t considered how odd it looks to have men in 19th-century waiting-on-table costumes and women in contemporary dress – a strange inversion of classical music’s inbuilt sexism).

Dress, though, is only the start. Orchestral musicians work inspiringly hard and demonstrate selfless skill often under difficult circumstances. But they also have a job many would kill for. That same orchestra that looked so appalling on stage happened to play a decent enough concert. But the message they projected with their faces and body language was that they’d rather have been elsewhere. Many of them looked miserable, tired and uninspired. Given London’s inexorable orchestral schedule, they probably were. But if you’ve lost your love and passion for orchestral music – or at least one that you can muster for 80% of concerts under well-meaning and talented conductors – it’s time to move on and let someone else who hasn’t take your place. If you don’t, you’ll help kill off the profession, which is grossly irresponsible, profoundly depressing and pretty unfair on the rest of us.

A few weeks later a different orchestra on the same stage exchanged broad smiles with each other as they capered their way through Sibelius’s Third Symphony. They beamed upwards at the conductor, helped their colleagues into difficult entries with encouraging stares, and became physically determined and fearsome when the music slipped underneath its dark Sibelian clouds. It wasn’t a youth or conservatory orchestra (which I’m increasingly drawn to these days as they breathe life into whatever they play). It was another of London’s five concert-giving symphony orchestras. The performance felt joyous, contemporary, sharp, hard-hitting, involving and utterly sincere – qualities that create ‘accessibility’ by default without the need for any introductory lecture from a conductor.

In my first music industry job, as an usher at The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, I remember a comment made to all the front of house staff by John Summers, chief executive of the Hallé orchestra and a former professional cellist. ‘We are all in show-business – the orchestra included’, he said, and none of us could escape the fact that he was bang on the money. In British cities, people pay to watch and hear orchestras entertain them for an evening, and each time they do so, those orchestras might well have won their custom over a play, a musical or even a football match. If musicians think its enough to play the right notes in the way the conductor has asked as if they are ‘just doing a job’, in the same way as a person who processes credit card receipts, then Max Hole is right – they are doomed.

Venues have a role to play as well, as do fellow audience members. Last night I witnessed a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde which was in many ways perfect; when I tried to fathom why the final pages felt so strangely lacking in atmosphere, I looked around at the brightly lit Royal Festival Hall and willed someone somewhere to dim the lights just an iota. Max Hole’s comments about altering lighting at concerts are sure to get the traditionalists in a frothy panic, but bright doctors-surgery lighting in our concert halls is one example of venues not tuning in to the atmosphere of what they’re presenting. That, and it probably encourages the current trend for coughing and spluttering at every opportunity.

Let’s be clear. Orchestral music is one of the most gob-smacking, beautiful and life-affirming miracles that you can legally pay to experience in this country. In many ways it speaks for itself and doesn’t need gimmicks to help it along. But what it does need is the right frame of mind from those people who have the outstanding talent to be able to earn a living from delivering it, and a little sympathy and forethought from the people who manage the buildings that host it. It’s the quality of the music that will ensure the future of our orchestras, so let’s remind ourselves why we fell in love with it in the first place.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014