The Myth That All Orchestras Today Sound Alike
For the past thirty years or so , many music critics and other experts (or so-called experts), have been complaining that all or most of today's orchestras sound alike , and long for the "good old days" when different orchestras had their own immediately identifiable "sounds" . Supposedly , there has been an internationalized homogenization of the way different orchestras sound , and the differences between German, French , Russian, Czech, English and American orchestras has disappeared, perhaps never to return .
But this is a myth . It's absolutely impossible for orchestras to sound alike , as they consist of different musicians playing different makes of instruments in concert halls with different acoustics . To my ears , the Berlin Philharmonic , the London symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Czech Philharmonic and other great orchestras do not sound alike at all .
How did the myth of internationalized homogenization come about ? My guess is that it's a psychological illusion based on the knee-jerk assumption that everything was "better" in the past of classical music .
Classical "declinists" are dime a dozen . They've been complaining about how standards of musical interpretation and musical interpretive flair have been declining ever since I became a classical music lover over 40 years ago in my early teens !
Another myth is the notion that "absentee music directors" of the world's great orchestras have led to all or most orchestras sounding the same . Supposedly , great conductors of the past who spent so many years building great orchestras ,such as Stokowski in Philadelphia, Szell in Cleveland and Ormandy in Philadelphia, for example , and they saw to it that their orchestras had "distinctive" sounds.
Today, music directors supposedly jet all over the world guest conducting other orchestras , so they have failed to maintain their orchestra's distinctive sounds. But this is a myth . Today, top orchestras have very long seasons, from September through May , and many have Summer residencies at music festivals, such as the Boston symphony in Tanglewood . It's impossible for one conductor to be there every week of the season . In the past , many top U.S. orchestras had much shorter seasons, so the music director could spend a larger chunk of it with his orchestra .
Certain great European orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic still use unusual makes of instruments which give their orchestras a distinctive sound. Outside of Austria, for example, no orchestra uses the Viennese horn , which has a different construction and valve system .
American and German oboists have totally different timbres . Many Americans do not like the German oboe sound at all , finding it unpleasantly reedy . Chances are that a German oboe player would never win an audition for an American orchestra .
Then there's the difference between the overall sound of an orchestra and the timbre of its individual instruments . The great Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, for example , when music director of the famously plush -sounding Philadelphia orchestra during the 80s after decades of plauying under the late Eugene Ormandy , was harshly criticized by many critics for having "destroyed" the orchestra's distinctive plush sound , as he preferred a leaner more sinewy sound . But he did not change the actual timbre of the orchestra's woodwind and brass sections, so the orchestra didn't actually "sound" different . To my ears from the recordings Muti and the Philadelphia made, the orchestra still sounded fine .
Often an orchestra's sound will change over the years as its personnel changes with principal players retiring . A music director sometimes chooses principal wood wind and brass players who sound different from their predecessors . But no matter how much the sound of an individual orchestra may change over the years , different orchestras around the world will always sound markedly different .