Orchestras are bewildered organisms, don’t know which way is up

Orchestras are bewildered organisms, don’t know which way is up


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2015

From a speech yesterday by Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra:

I remember when we were touring in Japan in 2007 we were giving a performance in Osaka. In Japan concerts halls are often built into larger complexes and this one happened to be on the third floor so you had to go up three flights of stairs to reach it. We arrived in buses and climbed three flights of stairs – in a glass atrium, to reach the concert platform.  After the performance I went through the backstage area to make sure nothing was left behind and found a musician standing in the stairwell looking at the stairs leading both up and down.

‘Which way is the bus?’ he asked me.

‘What in God’s name makes you think it’s upstairs?’

This musician – a highly intelligent person – had gotten through the whole day following the person in front and now suddenly was on their own they didn’t know what to do.

Read the full transcript here.

sydney symphony

Another Jeffes soundbite:

Musicians often have enormous reticence in communicating concerns about others’ performance levels to colleagues. Sometimes in a rehearsal (and hopefully only in a rehearsal!) someone will make a huge mistake or wrong entry – and there isn’t a twitch or eyebrow raised across the orchestra. Nothing. The sense is ‘they know they made the mistake – they don’t need me to point it out’. One of our senior musicians told me when he first worked at the back of a string section in one of the major London orchestras a horn player made a loud mistake and our musician turned round to look at the culprit. ‘What the hell are you looking at sonny?’ was the response. They never spoke again.


  • Halldor says:

    True story from the management office of an orchestra which shall remain nameless:

    Violinist (on phone to orchestra manager): “What’s happening for dinner when we’re out of town tomorrow?”
    OM: “Well, there’s a two-hour break before the concert; there are lots of restaurants and shops near the venue – or you could bring sandwiches”
    Violinist: “OK, thanks” (rings off)

    5 minutes pass, The phone rings again:

    Violinist: “It’s me. Those sandwiches – what should I put in them?”

  • Gerhard says:

    Mr. Jeffes is entirely right when he states: ” Ultimately, self-determination on musical issues driven by the musicians themselves are far more effective and inspiring than submitting to the all knowing maestro.” And if he really acts according to his words, then all the better for his orchestra.
    But in reality, there is preciously little meaningful and honest artistic discussion between orchestra musicians and conductors. The first are expected to keep their thoughts to themselves, while the latter has the right to completely monopolize the rehearsal time, whether he has any worthwhile thoughts or not. In another thread people harshly criticized a concert master for having requested his section to play as the conductor asked them to do, whether they believed in this or not. He thereby broke the taboo to always pretend that one believes in the wisdom of everything the present conductor demands. In other words, everybody is aware that conductors have very different levels of musical insight, but the orchestra is always expected to pretend to be fully convinced by the interpretation they are required to deliver. And this all in a work setting which has sometimes only a parallel in the traditional frontal teaching on an elementary school level. One shouldn’t be surprised that this may lead to the one or other déformation professionelle.
    The general consensus not to shame a colleague in an already embarrassing situation, however, doesn’t belong into this category imho. It simply serves the purpose to keep the orchestra functioning as a team. Peer pressure is anyway extremely high in this profession, because everybody’s personal performance depends so much on the work of the others. I find it a bit puzzling that an orchestra manager seems to have trouble realizing this.

  • Janis says:

    This all makes me glad that I play instruments that stand on their own and can play a whole piece by themselves.

  • Max Grimm says:

    The practice of ignoring a colleague’s mishap, apparently isn’t used by certain LA violists.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GC0eaPfdqLI (from 18:30 on)