When I was young, I learned to play the piano, organ, violin and cello. The cello was my main instrument in college. We had in my highschool and in the universities, many fine musicians all of whom were worried in the late sixties about landing jobs after graduation. The job market has collapsed and the discipline of learning classical music is in retreat. This saddens me greatly.
After a while, though, as is not unusual with shows anxious to maximize profit, the ensemble was cut back to 20, still well above the Al Hirschfeld Theater’s house minimum of 14 (including conductor) as stipulated by agreement between the musicians union and the league of Broadway producers. If not exactly a symphony, this was a number capable of producing, with amplification, a moderately rich sound not unlike what the show’s composer, Leonard Bernstein, might have imagined when he wrote it.
But audiences attending a performance of the production’s nonunion tour — which stopped last Sunday at the Tilles Center on Long Island and continues on the road through May — are seeing, and hearing, something quite different. The orchestra is down to 12 traditional instrumentalists, including four reeds and three horns, with only a lonely violin and cello to sweeten the mix. So why does it seem as dense as it did on Broadway? Why is the string sound so big, if not exactly Bernstein-y?
My high school, Palo Verde High, had double sessions and over a thousand students back in the early 1960's thanks to the housing and baby booms. Our orchestra was the size of most professional orchestras with many violins, a full contingent of cellos, even six basses as well as six French horns, four flutes and even a bassoonist.
We played very demanding music, too. Our orchestra was conducted by the former head of the Washington, DC Marine Corps band and he taught us a great deal and we comported ourselves as if we were a real orchestra. One year, I persuaded him to have us girls wear full-length, elegant black gowns.
We took pride in our accomplishments. Most of us had private coaches and we spent many hours mastering very difficult instruments. Learning to play a cello, for example, takes years. Bassoon: a miracle. Our families spent considerable sums on these enterprises. The lessons, carting us around, competitions in and out of state. My cello who I named 'Flosshilda' after one of the Rhine maidens in the Ring cycle, had have the same priced seats as I when we flew places for she could not tolerate being put in the plane's hold.
Once, going to a concert where I was part of a piano trio in Germany, the train I was on didn't wait for me to remove my luggage and then my cello and it began to leave the platform with me and the cello in the doorway. So I took a deep breath and flung myself into a snowbank, holding Flosshilda over my head.
She was unscratched, I was a bleeding mess. Everyone at the concert marveled at the big patches on my knees and elbow.
All musicians love their instruments and have strong feelings about them. Exploring the temperments, the responses of instruments is marvelous fun. One's personality can be shaped by an instrument even as we try to make the instrument respond to ourselves.
I have noticed this is fading. The panache that came from mastering Rennaisance instrumentations is no longer held in high regard. Just as composition of difficult, subtle music is fading, the ability to appreciate fine distinctions is being lost.
A trained ear that can tell various makes of violin from each other isn't going to be fooled easily by electronics, not even slightly. But one has to be trained to hear this. When playing an instrument, one has to heed its many levels of sound and manipulate this with the mouth or hands. It is an intimacy similar to skilled love-making. One has to caress the keys or finger the necks of these high-bred, nervous giselles.
One false move or badly pursed lips and the nervous femme fatales will protest, sometimes loudly.
From the NYT:
Customers clearly love the result. Peter Hoopes, director of technology as well as conductor of the annual musical at St. Andrew’s, a co-ed boarding school in Delaware, said that in previous years he’d had to make do with whatever instruments his volunteers happened to play. This year, having ordered InstrumentalEase for a production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” he turned on the MacBook, clicked “mute” for the instruments he had in the pit and produced the remainder of the orchestration by tapping while he conducted. He was astonished, as were his musicians.
“When they first heard it,” Mr. Hoopes said, “one of the comments was, ‘Well, I guess you don’t really need us here anymore.’ And it did cross my mind that if I wanted a perfect sound, I could just eliminate them. But we’re a small community, and part of the thrill is that everyone’s contributing. On the other hand, it was nice knowing that if one of the players got sick, I could just unmute that part and go right on.”
The minute amplification is used, the sound is detached from the musician. I never really liked rock concerts but I loved drummers on the street or in the Panhandle in San Francisco. Music that blasts away artificially are like eating fast food versus gourmand dinning. Like the difference between beer made from rice and a fine wine.
“Technology is always a threat to live music,” said Bruce Pomahac, director of music at Rodgers & Hammerstein. “When the pianoforte replaced the harpsichord, every harpsichordist was out of a job. And we all fall in love with the art we grew up with. But this is not about putting musicians out of work. They’re already out of work. This is about trying to get back, in some new form, something that’s lost.”
That may end up being the best the musicians union can hope for too. Could we one day find our orchestra pits filled with tuxedoed men and gowned women tapping at laptops? Mr. Lazarus, of Realtime, said he doesn’t want to wave a red flag at the union, but that the products are already working — and getting better.
Movie theaters over-amplify music to such a degree, the few times I ever bother going to such dens of annoyance, I had to wear earplugs, literally. I haven't gone in over seven years now and don't plan to go ever again. The improvements of modern technology at home, producing much better recordings that my ancient pre-stereo system of my childhood, are nice. When recordings first spread, they created a desire to learn the more difficult instruments.
I belonged to the Schwann catalogue family and bought records every month from my allowances and money I made, working. But the desire to play the cello ran very deep. I remember it very vividly.
I was watching 'Fantasia' at a drive-in theater in Scottsdale in 1956. The first movement of Beethoven's Symphony #6 was playing. As the cellos introduced the theme, out of the clouds came...Pegasus. I was amazed and happy to see him. I decided then and there to learn how to play the cello.
When Jackie Kennedy invited Pablo Cassalls to play at the White House, this was televised. I was glued to the set. And I watched all the Bernstein concerts for young people. I even remember RCA broadcasting whole operas.
Now, it seems that even upper-class communities can no longer muster junior orchestras for putting on simple musicals. I remember my high school orchestra: we had a mini-orchestra for musicals and we put on several different shows a year. And in college, I played in the pit, too. It was fun, we would watch the show from underneath. We would mouth some of the dialogues while making faces, and pull pranks during rehearsals.
Once, the brass section stuck a Playboy centerfold in the middle of the score and our conductor only paused slightly before turning the page. He did snort softly.
Recently I was listening to the BBC's classical station. They played a modern piece and the Mahler's symphony #9. The #9 is a very delicate spiderweb of complex sounds with several levels of rhythm that echoed the great composer's own faltering heart. It literally fades in to nothingness and requires great delicacy in perfoming.
The modern piece was loud, brash, had a harsh beat that was persistent and obvious. It was like playing a piano with a sledge hammer.
Then the Mahler came on and it was butchered to death. The musicians and the conductor couldn't pull themselves together and get that meditative yet compelling mood needed for that work. Instead of the pulsing, wave-like surges that fade and then surge forwards like a sea going out with the tide at sunset, it was choppy and chaotic. I listened as long as I could bear it and finally gave up. Maybe I was spoiled, hearing it with Leopold Ludwig and the London Symphony back in the mid-1960's.
But even back then, classical music was dying. Students were being dragooned into writing crummy music that was unbearable. And so the roots rotted and the well-spring dried up and now we are increasingly lost in the desert where the wild things howl at the moon and the wind hisses around our ankles.
And don't even get me started on poetry. As I keep saying, Pegasus hangs out with the goddesses of dance, music, art, poetry, astronomy and other fun stuff. And he would dearly love to see these arts advance, not die.
And this is Elaine Meinel Supkis of Culture of Life News, goodnight.