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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 .

Posted: Nov 26 2011, 11:55 AM by the horn | with no comments
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