And now for an unpopular opinion! This one could bring all you music directors down on my head (I almost typed “heads;” who do I think I am, Zaphod Beeblebrox?). Nevertheless, it is a pet peeve of mine, and as I recently bore witness to horrific example I’m getting up on my soap box for a bit.
Okay, here it is: I think some music directors don’t recognize the limitations of their musicians and overreach when selecting concert pieces.
I’ve seen it: a couple weeks ago I attended a school concert. I won’t say what school (since, um, I won’t be complimentary), but I will say it was above high school level. The chamber music ensemble came on and began to play a piece by Haydn, and I’m SORRY but it was so bad I almost burst out laughing. I had to hide behind my program and silently convulse until I had composed myself. I know! I know! Unprofessional and downright mean! But it was a visceral reaction!
Their next selection was almost as terrible, but the last two were palatable. They weren’t great, but they were palatable. And I thought to myself, if the music director had chosen four pieces on that level, things wouldn’t have been nearly as embarrassing.
I’ve lived it: in undergrad I had a string ensemble director so heinous he drove me right out of the program. Was it because he looked almost exactly like Richard Simmons? … Okay, maybe a little. But mostly it was because he turned our little orchestra into the M****l S****s Orchestral Vehicle For Self Promotion.
A violist, he had us play a Hindemith viola concerto so that he could do the solo. The strings program at my college was not robust, and the Hindemith was so far out of our league that we weren’t even playing the same sport. There was one other cellist besides me, and I remember us in rehearsal being on two completely different measures. Our exchange went something like this:
Me: Where are you?
Her: I don’t know. Where are you?
Me: I don’t know!
THAT SHOULD NOT HAPPEN. Honestly, it makes me so mad that we were even playing it in the first place I still want to find the man and strangle him. His solution was to bring in his own string quartet to lead the sections in the concert. Don’t even get me started on that one.
I can see the value of a challenge. Sometimes if you ask your musicians to rise to the occasion they will pleasantly surprise you; sometimes it will inspire them to work harder and bust it out against the odds. Twelfth grade orchestra, one week before Music in the Parks at my one true love Walt Disney World, O’Bryan pulls out an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and says hey, let’s just give this a shot. No pressure. We tried it, we practiced the heck out of it in the next four days, and we played it that weekend for a jury. But, see… we sounded pretty good. If we had sounded crappy, WE WOULD HAVE PLAYED SOMETHING ELSE. (Incidentally, that strings program was also pretty anemic. Small numbers is not an excuse.)
I know what every music director tells you before the concert: “Don’t worry if you make a mistake! Nobody out there knows the difference!” All my conductors certainly have, every time. And I would think to myself: Ha! My mother is in the audience AND SHE KNOWS AND SHE WILL TELL ME. Which didn’t bother me, because if it sucked it sucked and we’re honest about music in my family. But I guess it makes me… maybe a little hypercritical?
But still! How can you go out there on stage and smile and conduct when your ensemble isn’t just a little pitchy but downright bad? Is there something I’m not getting?
(Disclaimer: I recognize that not all music directors are guilty of these sins. Don’t feel like just because you’re a music director I’m automatically lumping you into this group. I’ve just noticed it an awful lot of this sort of thing.)