ain't baroque! :||
Don't Fix It

Phoning it in

First, let me start out with a story that makes me out to be a bit of a pretentious twit, so that I can later make the mild accusation that others are pretentious twits without sounding like I’m speaking from a particularly high horse.

My family went to visit my grandmother in NJ for Mother’s Day, and as part of our activities we went to a local library to see an outreach performance by members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. The program consisted of Broadway music, and the finale was a big ol’ Sound of Music medley. About a quarter of the way in, I was horrified when the audience started to sing along. Gauche! Unsophisticated! Mortifying! I cringed in my seat and later, once the dreadful experience was over, I inquired to my parents what they thought of this impromptu sing-along. “Well,” my dad said, “they invited us to sing along if we wanted.” Oh. I completely missed that bit. So I guess that was all right…

Now that I’ve pointed out my own folly, let’s talk about the concert itself. It was… pretty good. The musicians, members of a highly respected orchestra, were of course talented and played well. I commend them for volunteering to perform outreach such as this, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if they don’t receive any additional compensation for doing it. However, I wish to register some complaints, not to lambast the NJSO or these musicians in particular, but as a means of pointing out what I understand to be a common phenomenon: the phoned-in concert.

Item 1. The highlight was a snippet of Isaac Stern’s fancy violin solos from Fiddler on the Roof; the rest of the programming was very safe, gentle, and of the love song persuasion. Take the three selections from West Side Story: “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria,” and “One Hand, One Heart” (I think; I tend to mentally wander off whenever love songs happen). All extremely unchallenging, you know? How about a fiery rendition of “America”? How about the tense, jazzy “Cool”? An even keel can get boring, guys. Change it up a little.

Item 2. The group was a trifle unprepared. On two separate occasions, the cellist – who, it should be pointed out, was the best of the bunch – could not find his music and once had to run backstage to get it. The violinist forgot to turn off his cell phone. They both played these things off charmingly and it made for some laughs, but this sort of thing wouldn’t go down in a concert hall.

Item 3. Riffing off the unprepared thing, there were some intonation problems, especially in the violinist, as well as some general group issues. The aforementioned “I Feel Pretty” was particularly sloppy.

I discussed this with my mother, who is the Fount of Classical Knowledge in all things, and she noted that this was not an isolated incident. She then recounted seeing a well-regarded cellist perform a Shostakovich piece at a small, outreach-style concert, and commenting to a music teacher friend that she was surprised how unpolished his performance was. “Oh, no,” replied the music teacher. “That’s normal. He probably barely practiced for it. They tend to phone that kind of thing in.”

Interesting. So. Here’s the big question: Why? Where’s the cut off? Not to rag on the NJSO, but let’s break it down with their example. Was it because they were performing simple little Broadway tunes, and pfffft, who cares about Broadway? Was it because they were performing in a library in central NJ, and pfffft, who cares about the hicks in central NJ?* Was it because it was free, and/or they performed for free? Did they not make the program themselves, recognize it as a bit boring, and therefore not feel the need to put in the practice time? Or maybe it was because they only found out about their performance yesterday and didn’t have time to sufficiently prepare even if they wanted to?

I’m sorry, NJSO. You guys were really good. I’m just saying: it was clear that you could have been much, much better. Not that it’s just you, anyway. And I’m wondering why. Anybody have thoughts on that, either as an audience member or a performer? When does one phone it in?

* Not to suggest that central NJ is full of hicks. I have lots of family in NJ! I’ll defend it! Except the jughandles, which are STUPID. What’s up with the jughandles, Jersey?

About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


7 thoughts on “Phoning it in

  1. Musicians should never phone it in. Not ever.

    “Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for—for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.”
    ― George Balanchine

    It is a mistake to underestimate an audience. Even untrained listeners may have sophisticated ears. Also, every audience has at least one person who *can* tell the difference.

    Posted by Sheri | May 14, 2013, 9:03 am
    • Y’know, for all the Balanchine was kind of a jerk, he was also kind of AWESOME.

      Posted by Jenn | May 14, 2013, 9:27 am
    • This is a very touchy subject, especially in the presence of unions. I agree with the previous commentator that there is never a time a performer can back-off from their very best.

      Unfortunately, the way most orchestra jobs are setup means that people work for life, pretty much regardless of their ability to complete the tasks required at the highest level possible. A friend who is 62 and has been playing in the SAME orchestra for 31 years, is very tired, bored and can’t wait to retire. He’s just waiting to earn the maximum pension. He admits his heart is no longer in it and that he doesn’t care. He knows his embouchure is no longer secure/ reliable/ flexible, and the dullness in his eyes tells a great deal more. He also gave up teaching on the side several years ago.

      That’s horribly sad, and not only prevents other more energetic, hungry and capable performers from sharing their skills and talents, but denies audiences the brilliance and vitality that live music making should offer (let alone some level of accuracy).

      What you describe above is nothing new from when I first experienced NJSO 12 years ago, and an all too common scenario at many, many regional professional orchestras. (There are, as always, exceptions.) There’s a reason why one of the most respected orchestra re-builders only lasted a handful of years with this orchestra – it’s obvious to some when their hands are tied and they’re told to work with what they’ve got, which isn’t always the best available. (Same applies to administrators, too.) (And teachers, come to think of it.)

      Are there alternative ways forward? Absolutely. People like Emily Wozniak in NY and the Aurora Orchestra in the UK are forging their own paths, without too much interference. But it’ll be a battle resolution we have to wait for as the older generation of performers slowly makes room for more flexible employment arrangements centered around accountability, unless the musicians and unions themselves step up their game.

      Posted by Stephen P Brown (@Stephen_P_Brown) | May 14, 2013, 9:37 am
      • Aww, that is very sad. 😦 But I do have to understand where he’s coming from, economics being what they are. There is the love of music, but we cannot deny that there is also your kid’s college education. I can only imagine it can be rough finding the balance.

        Interesting point about the orchestra re-builders. By definition they must be people who constantly look forward to what can be, and if they are told what can be is only what currently is, what else can they do?

        As always, a beautiful reply, Mr. Brown (Can Moo).

        Posted by Jenn | May 14, 2013, 9:48 am
  2. I agree that musicians should never phone it in, and definitely appreciate your pointing out the possibility that the ensemble had short preparation time.

    Yet when it comes to choice of material, I’m inclined to give them more of the benefit of the doubt. If this is an outreach activity at a local library and therefore intended for a more general audience, they may have been deliberately seeking a tuneful, familiar program that invites a singalong (not necessarily something that regular classical listeners may find less than challenging.

    Posted by Andrew J. Sammut | May 14, 2013, 9:30 am
    • That’s true – it is difficult to gauge the knowledge level of an audience and they’re probably actively encouraged to select accessible material. Still, I think there’s room to stretch a bit; after all, audiences must be exposed to new things if we ever hope them to enjoy new things! And hey, if they’re not paying, they can’t demand a refund. 😉

      Posted by Jenn | May 14, 2013, 9:34 am


  1. Pingback: People who KNOW | If it ain't Baroque... - May 28, 2013

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