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Views And Reviews: “An Amateur Orchestra Discovered, Prompting Some Reflections on Amateur Orchestral Music-Making, and Tested on a Concert Review”

Paul Serotsky considers the monumental task that amateur musicians take on when they combine their talents to play some of the greatest music ever written.

To read more of Paul’s articles on music please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/

Northland Sinfonia, Atsuko Fukuoka (cond.), St. John’s Church, Whangarei, New Zealand, Saturday 16 August 2008 (PSe)

It’s the middle of August, and they dangle before me the promise of “an afternoon of light music”. Ordinarily, this would have struck me as the perfect pastime for a balmy summer’s day. Hmm. I’ve now been “down under” for almost a year, but I’ve still not quite recovered my grip on the “ordinary”. They take some getting used to, all these topsy-turvy things such as water going down the plug-hole the wrong way, the sun crossing the sky backwards – and, of course, August being at the fag-end of winter!

So, I thank my lucky stars – although, of course, many of those are now permanently beyond my horizon – that music sounds the same whichever way “up” I am, and that a concert is still the best way to experience music, regardless of the season. Even better, the current “carrot” is being dangled by an amateur orchestra. Ha! That should spark a few dissenting reactions. “Oh, come on!” I hear from various voices, “You don’t really mean that, do you? An amateur orchestra won’t sound as good as a professional one, will it?” Well, my friends, true that may be, but it’s not the whole truth. Now I hear, from a differently-constituted chorus, noises of assent.

The amateur orchestra in question was entirely new to me. As far as I was concerned, up until a short while before this concert the Northland Sinfonia (“NSO” for short) had inhabited the realm of rumour. If I seem a little “off the ball”, I do have an excuse. Briefly, the tumult of immigration hadn’t even fully subsided before I succumbed to a serious ear problem that, for many months, has put the mockers on most matters musical. Although I’m by no means out of the woods yet, at least I can – or I think I can – see a faint glimmering at the end of the tunnel.

Anyway, my hopefully understandable transports of delight at the discovery of this “new” amateur orchestra set me thinking, all over again, about this entire business of “amateur vs. professional”. You see, to my mind amateurs should never be dismissed – which they all too often are – as “second-class performers”. They yield to professionals in terms of technical proficiency, but that’s all; the balance is redressed by certain advantages, rather less obvious, that they have over professionals. “Advantages”? Yes! Let me try to explain myself.

Back in my native Yorkshire, over many years I’d been involved with a fair spectrum of amateur orchestras. At one extreme came such as the renowned Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra (see http://www.spo.org.uk/ which contains some truly fascinating history). The SPO’s playing membership adds up to a full-sized “standard” symphony orchestra, which regularly gives alarmingly creditable performances of a wide range of music.

Yet, they go further - by hiring, as necessary, players of relatively obscure instruments, they take on major works such as Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, Bruckner’s Ninth, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and Suk’s Asrael Symphony. Occasionally they rope in local choirs, brass bands, singers and so forth, whatever is necessary to mount really ambitious productions including, for example, Mahler’s Third Symphony and Puccini’s Turandot.

At the other extreme came the likes of the Paddock Orchestra. When I was involved with this happy little band, it was quite literally open to all-comers, whatever their ability (or lack of it). Its aim was as simple as it was laudable: to provide such folk with the opportunity to play together. Because all-comers rarely, if ever, all come conveniently pre-packed in proper proportions, the PO had many interesting balance problems, which were surmounted through a cheerfully “make do and mend” approach to whatever they wanted to have a bash at.

My heart soon filled with respect and admiration for these folk. I once [SPO Quarterly Journal No. 9, March 1993] tried to express it thus:

“I find my mind utterly boggled at the sheer audacity of organisations such as the SPO. Somebody once said that 'the symphony orchestra is the supreme achievement of western civilisation' - with good reason, as it would seem nigh on impossible to get so many people simply to co-operate on any venture, let alone produce music! It's tough enough for hardened professionals, so what are the chances of 'a bunch of mere amateurs'?

“A typical effort will be littered with a continuum of faults. The problem is that audiences, weaned on the synthetic perfection of commercial recordings, tend to be unthinkingly intolerant of faults in even live professional performances, let alone amateur ones. I argue (long and hard) that audiences must tailor their expectations, just as do those who tolerate the sound of ancient recordings, to 'listen through' the surface imperfections to the music that lies beneath. The tolerant are richly rewarded. Enthusiastic amateurs, perpetually striving against their limitations, restore to Music what is lost to the prosaic professional: the elements of risk and danger; the familiar becomes new, challenging, exciting!”

Because of the limited space of a paper publication, I necessarily side-stepped a fair bit of reasoning. However, here I don’t have any such excuse, do I? Right then, so now I’ll try to describe the reflections and reasoning that led to that mini-pæan. We’ll start with an analogy: think of technical ability as a ladder. Amateurs occupy the lower rungs, professionals the higher, with a grey area somewhere in between. So far, so good?

Whatever rung any given ensemble sits on, that rung and below defines its “comfort zone”, whilst higher rungs represent areas increasingly beyond its capabilities. Hence, the further upwards it strives, the greater its risk of “failure”. This leads us to the blindingly obvious conclusion that amateurs cannot afford to “take risks”, for fear of transforming a potentially shaky performance into an absolute shambles, whilst professionals are much better placed to chance their arms, on account of their superior, or even supreme technical assurance.

I called this conclusion “blindingly obvious”. Well, obvious it may be, but, in my humble opinion, true it is not. If anything, the exact opposite is true! Near the very top of the ladder, virtually all is “comfort zone”. There is little or nothing “beyond”, other than the green fields of Parnassus accessible from the top rung. Hence, there is scant scope for taking any significant risks. Correspondingly, the lower down the ladder you are, the more headroom you have. So, what happens if an ensemble tries pushing upwards, beyond its comfort zone, if it “strives against its limitations”? Well, its “fault rate” increases: the performance becomes increasingly “shaky” until, at some point, it crumbles catastrophically into a “shambles”.

Any ensemble can, of course, opt to snuggle safely in its comfort zone, so why take any risks at all? The crème de la crème can certainly afford this luxury – after all, they’ve worked long and hard for precisely that. An amateur ensemble, however small its comfort zone, can also opt to play safe. However, in music as in anything else, it’s the risks that generate the thrills. Moreover, catastrophe will by no means strike the very instant you stick your nose out of your comfort zone, and the more confident – or “audacious” – you are, the further up the ladder your breaking-point will be.

Ultimately it’s a matter of judging just how far the elastic will stretch before breaking, or (better!) how near to the edges of their seats the performers can get without actually falling off. The better the balance they strike, the more the performers’ tingling nerves will set their audience’s nerves tingling. This requires nothing more than a bit of “risk management”, and that – need I say? – is the conductor’s job.

Let me cite an example of a conductor “managing risk”. Whilst I was balancing microphones at a SPO rehearsal, I heard an impressive remonstration from their then conductor, Adrian Smith. I happened to have the recorder running, so I was able to transcribe the incident word for word: "NO!!! Somebody didn't WATCH! The very point I made – you must watch – DON’T look at your music. I'd sooner you play a wrong note, every one of you, in time, than a right note in the wrong place. How many more times do I have to tell you, there's more important things than notes in this business! So, WATCH for that downbeat . . . [music starts] . . . That's it! GOOD!!!"

Equally, Adrian was quite content to let players “skip a few notes” if it preserved the music’s all-important vitality. Generally speaking, Adrian was much less concerned with making “nice” sounds than releasing as much as possible of the music’s inherent drama. It’s a fact – I have recordings to prove it – that generally the smoother and sweeter an amateur performance is technically, the less spine-tingling it is for its audience.

Given what I’ve said already, this isn’t at all surprising, because, at any level of expertise, sonic beauty is maximised by minimising mistakes, that is, by keeping well within the comfort zone – and hence not taking any risks at all. Turning that on its head leads to a possibly provocative proposition – “Truly exciting performance depends not on technical proficiency, but on willingness to take risks”.

Yet, surely, there must be more to it than that? Plenty of professional performances blow off our socks, don’t they? Yes, of course they do, and partly for the same reason – professionals, remember, merely have less scope for risk-taking. But it’s also partly because we, the audience, are impressed – often far too impressed – by sheer virtuosity of execution, which generally produces, not excitement itself, but simply the semblance of excitement.

I’ll be the first to admit that these reflections are merely my own musings, more a “first approximation” than a thorough thesis. However, they at least table a few ideas for further discussion, ideally over a pint or two. It behoves me to close the loop on “explaining myself”. The “truth” is that amateurs indeed do not sound as good as professionals but, for that crucial “whole truth”, we must recognise that they are far better placed for producing thrilling – both exciting and moving – performances. This is an enormous advantage, and in my opinion that’s ample reason for preferring an amateur performance to a professional one – provided, that is, the amateurs are eager to grab the gauntlet so conveniently dropped before them, and give it a damned good shake!

So, let’s put this to the test. I just need an amateur orchestra that’s new to me – and the NSO will do nicely. It’s basically a “large chamber orchestra”, on this occasion comprising 17 strings (5-4-3-3-2), 3 flutes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 horn, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, tympani and percussion. Nobody knows exactly how long the NSO has been around, because no records were kept until, as the Whangarei Municipal Orchestra, it first performed in public, over 70 years ago.

In 1988 it dropped the “Municipal”, tempting me to think it might have “enjoyed” civic support similar to that of Barbirolli’s Hallé. In 1999, adoption of the present name acknowledged the true geographical distribution of its playing membership. I gather that the NSO’s repertoire is fairly modest, at least when compared with the likes of the SPO. Nevertheless, last year, in conjunction with a local choir, Consortium, and pianist Atsuko Fukuoka, it performed Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia – hardly what I’d call blushingly “modest”.

In the mid-1960s, Adrian Smith dragged a dying SPO – reduced to a mere dozen playing members! – back from the brink of extinction. However, although the NSO has similarly had its back to the wall, it has never subsequently flourished to the same spectacular extent. This is partly because Fortune hasn’t favoured it with a messianic conductor, but more because Northland is at a demographic disadvantage. Huddersfield is more self-sufficient and has a much higher population density. By comparison, Northland has nowhere near the same amount of budding talent, whilst both higher education and the job market continually strip the bush of buds just as they come into bloom. Well, you have to play the cards you’re dealt. On the whole, the NSO seems to be playing a pretty fair game.

Their “afternoon of light music” began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. This isn’t really what you’d call “light music”, but provides as good a test as any of an orchestra’s mettle. The opening grim, gruff phrases elevated my eyebrows: the richness of the strings’ sound was striking. Because of the modest overall numbers, this cannot be due entirely to their relative numbers slightly favouring the bass end. No, credit is mostly due to the conductor and the players for taking advantage of their current good fortune.

There were glitches in the wind playing sufficient for professionals to have been shown the red card (or simply be given their cards). However, these were a far cry from poor playing, because otherwise they gave me much pleasure. Moreover, they’d compensated admirably well for the lack of oboes – whose absence, if I can put it this way, was never intrusive. The firm and accurate tympani sounded splendid. Sometimes they seemed overly forceful, which I suspect was due to a minor misjudgement of the performing environment – the church hall was, admittedly, too small and acoustically cramped.

So far, so good! However, when Egmont got moving, the NSO didn’t. Not even the ageing Otto Klemperer took Egmont’s quick bits this slowly. To me, they seemed to be playing far too carefully – those menacing crescendi didn’t so much surge as ascend serenely. In the final item these symptoms were less pronounced, largely due to the more lyrical and less aggressive strains of Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture. Here the NSO’s performance was both elegant and enjoyable, and would have been entirely so – I am duty-bound to say – had it not been for the gratuitous snare-drum that did Schubert no favours whatsoever.

By and large, the bits of genuine “light music” went splendidly. John Dylan, a former NSO conductor, has arranged the Helston Furry Dance (otherwise known to Terry Wogan fans as the Floral Dance) for double-bass and orchestra. This proved to be a thoroughly charming miniature, in which Alanna Jones’s gruff yet genial double-bass, perhaps a tad quietly, formed an admirable foil for the cheerful orchestra.

In the orchestral version of Vaughan Williams’s Greensleeves Fantasia, the opening woodwind phrases lacked something of the composer’s characteristic “misty distance”, but the strings compensated by caressing the ancient melody with all due fondness. In spite of being billed as “No. 1”, a Brahms Hungarian Dance turned out to be none other than the famous “No. 5”. Although, again, it should ideally have been rather quicker – and a good deal coarser! – Atsuko Fukuoka coaxed some fine gradations of tempo from her players.

Concertos don’t usually feature in light music concerts, but this programme had one. It came in the delightful form of Leroy Anderson’s Sandpaper Ballet, which occasioned much inventive humour. Two “sandpaper soli”, Naotake Fukuoka and the orchestra’s percussionist, Jason Wordsworth, appeared wearing appropriate costume – grubby overalls, tee-shirts, baseball caps and so on – and bearing a table that held a full panoply of “instruments”. Although they took an unconscionable amount of time tuning up (!), it was well worth the wait for the ensuing bravura performance.

The extravagant gestures normally associated with flashy showmanship were here employed effectively, demonstrating to maximum advantage the full range of expressive subtlety of these rare and delicate instruments, and facilitating appreciation of the comparative capabilities of the various members of the instrumental family. Those who were not completely transfixed by this extraordinary exhibition, of which I seemed to be one, enjoyed the additional delight of an NSO, laid-back, positively beaming, clearly revelling in its tuneful backdrop to the up-front shenanigans.

There were two embedded diversions. The Kotare Ensemble, comprising two NSO players – Emily Thompson (viola) and Nigel Harrison (clarinet) – and Atsuko Fukuoka (piano), played Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio (K498). Quite coincidentally, only a few weeks previously this very work had been played locally, by the Tawahi Trio. Good as that was, I think this was better, yielding to the Tawahi only in terms of refinement.

Nowadays, to my mind, attitudes to Mozart tend to be far too reverential. Even when the music begs to be belted out “gustissimo”, it still ends up with an odour of ecclesiastical mothballs clinging to it. Notwithstanding the venue, the Kotare players were refreshingly profane. Putting classical elegance firmly in its proper place, they restored a degree of earthiness, reminding us that, in its day, this sort of thing was popular music – you didn’t kneel at its feet, but revelled in it. These players were having fun, and their fun was infectious.

The other diversion was a “guest appearance” by the Whangarei Youth Orchestra conducted by Naotake Fukuoka, minus his best DIY bib and tucker. This was particularly interesting, not only in its own right, but also because the WYO, in some respects, is the major “nursery” for future NSO players. I wasn’t over-impressed by their outer items. Video Games Live and Klaus Nadelt’s hum-drum music for Pirates of the Caribbean were nothing more than “merchandising” products – musically speaking, all icing and no cake.

The centrepiece, however, was Smetana’s Vltava. Alright, so it was a “junior edition”, reduced to the Big Tune and the village dance, but it sounded pretty faithful to the original. So, I found it useful, because through the familiar music I could fairly gauge the youngsters’ playing. It was astonishingly good – smooth-sounding strings simulating the stream, and village dancing that tempted your toes to tapping. Here were high hopes for the NSO’s future, if only some of them could hang around long enough!

Applying my detailed deliberations about amateur music-makers to just this one concert, what can I – relatively briefly! – conclude about the NSO? Quite simply, it possesses far more potential than it’s presently using. Take the most obvious symptom: that over-cautious Beethoven suggested a lack of confidence allied to an overriding desire not to trip up.

In my book, such a timid approach, selling themselves short, is probably one of the biggest mistakes that amateurs can make. For, although they do indeed play a bit more cleanly, they thereby deny themselves the golden opportunity to invest the music with real, nerve-tingling excitement. As I implied above, the ability to generate excitement by taking risks is an amateur orchestra’s greatest asset. The NSO looks ripe for a bit of the old elastic-stretching, leading to a corresponding lift in the fun factor, for both players and audiences alike. The evidence? Read on!

Firstly, a general audience could cheerfully tolerate quite a lot more glitches than they produce. In fact, most of their glitches weren’t even “stress-related”. Secondly, even the sharpest ears would be hard pressed to take even mild offence at their intonation. Thirdly, the smiles exchanged, even whilst playing, demonstrated evident enjoyment. Fourthly, there’s no lack of ability – as witness the Kotare Ensemble and, for that matter, I didn’t notice anybody else patently struggling! Fifthly and, for now, lastly, the “easier” pieces tended to come off better

All this just goes to show that there is indeed a “comfort zone”, within which the NSO is nestling cosily, and hence there’s a big, fat “envelope” just waiting to be given a jolly good push! In sporting fraternities, there’s a well-known – or maybe just “well-worn” – saying that could apply equally to amateur music-makers: “Feel the fear, but do it anyway.” I sincerely hope that they do do it anyway. I’ll try to keep you posted.

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