The Met’s concertmaster: An orchestra is not a democracy

There’s a fascinating new interview on the Met musicians’ website with concertmaster David Chan, a Tchaikovsky prize winner from San Diego. Among other things, David says:

 

david chan

I think the thing is – and I say this in the best possible sense – an orchestra is not a democracy. It’s a hierarchy; it’s set up that way. Ultimately, what the conductor says is what goes. But there are things that are not directly addressed by the conductor. Then, maybe the principal player has to make certain decisions. So when you have an orchestra full of great players and great people, everyone respects the structure and the process and it’s not really an issue. One thing we pride ourselves on at the Met is that there is a lot of commitment in our playing.

Read the full interview here.

 

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  • It’s true that good orchestras are “full of great players and great people, everyone respects the structure and the process and it’s not really an issue.” Unfortunately, it’s this hierarchy, subservience and conformity that so often makes orchestra musicians dull. It really is an issue that orchestras are one of the few ways for classical musicians to make a living, and yet they debase many of our best musical minds.

        • Normally, the Met, like other big opera houses, carries double sets of principal players including concertmasters. A recent opening has yet to be filled.

          • The Met is the only full time opera orchestra in the USA. The next two houses, San Francisco and Chicago, only have half year seasons.

            The Met also crowds 300 performances into a 7 month season. Houses in Europe with that many performances distribute them over 11 month seasons, and they have very large orchestras where the musicians rotate the work. The Vienna State Opera, for example, has 149 positions. The Met’s musicians are so busy during the season that it can be difficult to do much outside work. These issues contribute to the problems I describe in other posts in this thread.

          • Really? The Met too get’s hit with the stereotype? 7 very busy months… and 5 months holidays per year. A massive salary. The premier opera orchestra in the world. Massive opportunities to play and teach outside of the job.

            I wonder how many tutti players would prefer not to have this job, don’t really like it, etc etc as you assert.

          • About 4 of the 5 month off season is reserved for rehearsals. The Met follows this schedule because so many of the house’s wealthy patrons flee the city during the summer.

    • What an idiotic and insulting generalisation. I, and many orchestral players like me, am entirely contented as part of a string section. Group music making for me is a much more fulfilling event than playing alone, and it is exactly the job I’ve dreamed of since first playing in youth orchestra at the age of 13. The complexity of sound and sheer beauty of the orchestral repertoire is breathtaking. For me playign in a large group is like sharing a meal as opposed to eating alone. We support each other, musically and often personally. We share in the creating of and the enjoyment of the music. Playing in a section of a good orchestra is certainly the single most rewarding musical experience I’ve had. Failed Paganinis?? RUBBISH

      • I think empirical data for the string graduates of top conservatories in Europe and America might show that Mr. Hildrew’s comment is to a considerable degree valid. I suspect that most violinists from schools like Julliard, Curtis, and New England prefer solo and chamber work, and that they would prefer not to have a career as a tutti player in an orchestra.

        • Maybe you are correct, I can only speak of my own experience, and currently in my orchestra there is only one tutti musician who feels this way. One out of 54. That one musician really wants to only play chamber music, and is very unhappy. Anyone who feels stuck in a job that they don’t want will almost certainly become unhappy, but I really feel it is a myth that this represents the bulk or even a large percentage of tutti players. Also, orchestral musicians have lots of opportunities to DEVELOP artistic sensibilities. No longer being forced to constantly prioritise ANY work for financial reasons, orchestral musicians are free to really hone their own techniques, and also peruse musical and artistic directions that were previously impossible. Free to focus taking up a second instrument, dabble in chamber music… There is a lot of free time involved in the job, once you actually get one!

          • It would be good to have concrete empirical data. A well-known study by Richard Hackman, a social psychologist at Harvard, found high levels of job dissatisfaction among orchestra musicians. They like the status and the rare privilege of being a professional classical musician, but they don’t really like the actual work.

            If you really are a French musician, that might account in part for some of your perspectives. American musicians in top orchestras have more services, and especially the solo winds. Larger European orchestras fill all solo positions with co-principals so they only do 50% of the services. This affords them time to do other things.

  • There are no earth-shattering revelations in the part of David Chan’s interview that is quoted in this post. As for becoming “dull”, it can and does happen in all kinds of professions and jobs, just like there are plenty of people in those same professions and jobs – including longtime orchestral players – who stay just as “sharp” as anyone.

    • True. Being an orchestra musician is like many professions. It isn’t so much being an artist as an artisan, skilled labor that makes things by hand that serve an artist’s work (the conductor.)

      The nature of the work, such as playing violin in unison with 25 people, obviously dulls one’s artistic sensibilities, and yet orchestra musicians are loath to admit it. The support of such a system is generally in proportion to where one stands in the pecking order. Conductors love this “brotherhood” in music; first chair players revel in their status, even though they know they know it dulls their musical accomplishment; and tutti players, especially in the strings, just do it as a job they often don’t like.

      Why can’t we develop something better than doesn’t reduce highly accomplished artists to artisans?

      • William, with respect, have you ever played in an orchestra as a professional tutti player? Where are you getting your information?? Skilled labour?? It’s not plastering a wall here we are talking about!

        Ok – if you want to reduce 20 years of specialist study to ‘skilled labour’ that’s your choice, but I get the strong feeling you might just be talking through an unspeakable orifice. Orchestral musicians lesser artists than other musicians? How do you qualify that?

        “…first chair players revel in their status, even though they know they know it dulls their musical accomplishment; and tutti players, especially in the strings, just do it as a job they often don’t like.”

        Ok, are you high? Seriously though, what accomplishment do you think is being dulled exactly by concertmasters doing their work? Also, tutti players ONLY exist in the strings, and almost all I know love their work. I’m sorry to become defensive, but really, this kind of stereotyping does nobody any favours.

        • I know orchestras very well. My wife was principal trombone of the Munich Phil for 13 years. I’ve studied orchestras closely. See the articles section of my website:

          http://www.osborne-conant.org/articles.htm

          I can only say that your perspectives about job satisfaction do not align with the many tutti string players I know.

          I speak of orchestra musicians as artisans for several reasons:

          + They must submit their own artistic views to conductors and section leaders.
          + They must submit their own individuality to a collective regimentation.
          + Their repertoire centers in the century before last, and thus lacks an immediacy of connection to the modern world.
          + Their performance practices are highly codified and offer little room for originality.
          + And their work is highly repetitive which often reduces engagement.

          I address these problems because I feel the music world suffers from the domination of orchestras and orchestra musicians. This is especially true in America’s top music schools where the faculties are often drawn almost exclusively from orchestras. There are so many other ways to make music, but they are often overlooked due to an almost obsessive focus on orchestras. The students thus receive narrow educations that leave them uncreative and in general poorly suited for entering the actual music world.

  • Boring interview. Very PC “Levine is the greatest conductor” what else is the CM of the Met going to say?

  • Thanks for drawing this interesting article to our attention. What’s remarkable is the smooth consistency of the acceptance and pride in being part of a hierarchy, in the orchestra, in obeisance to the union, in reverence to the deity, all of a package, and somehow unfaltering, in the service of art. Almost unbelievable that such institutions continue to exist — so against the general movement of the times.

  • As an American orchestral musician, I see william osborne’s descriptions of my job as being strictly one-sided. Yes, we do have to play together, unified by a single interpretative vision (such horrors!); but working in a fine orchestra still allows one to stay artistically involved and actually pursue one’s own artistic growth, by learning from conductors, soloists and, believe it or not, from one’s own colleagues – not to mention using opportunities for solo and chamber music performances, as well as simply getting together with colleagues and reading any amount of music just for the fun of it. All this is being done every day by hundreds of musicians in major American orchestras. There are certainly many complainers among us (who wouldn’t want to work less while earning more?), but that does not really prove anything except that we are human: there is no doubt in my mind that most of us would not really want to trade this job for any other.

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