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Judging How Well Orchestras Play Is A Highly Subjective Matter

   Classical music gadfly Greg Sandow has been discussing the touchy subject of how well orchestras play recently,both on his blog at and on Facebook.  Why is this such a controversial subject ?
No two classical music experts , critics, fans and musicologists can agree about what constitutes good,great,mediocre, or lousy playing. 

  The recent list of the supposedly 20  greatest orchestras   by a British classical music magazine shows this. Some great orchestras were not even on the list ,including the world-famous Philadelphia orchestra, which is downright puzzling, given how prestigious a group it has been for so long. 

   What are the criteria for judging an orchestra ?  1. The playing must be precise ,  in tune and  well balanced . All the musicians must have superior technical ability and be able to get through the most tricky passages with aplomb.
  The playing is not ragged , or out of sync at any time . There must be nothing noticeably out of tune.
   You should be able to hear the many different lines of instruments playing ,  it should not sound muddy, and the brass, the loudest instruments in the orchestra, should never drown out the rest of the orchestra, which can easily happen if the conductor is not careful .

2. The orchestra should sound rich and  euphonious .  The brass should be powerful but not  blare stridently.
    The strings should be smooth and silky , and the woodwinds should blend well.  These things are true of many orchestras around the world ,  but not every one agrees on which orchestra sounds better than another.  Some music critics find fault with the playing of some orchestras ,either on recordings or at live performances, sometimes different sections of the orchestra, whether strings, woodwinds,brass or percussion.  One may not like the sound of this or that principal player in the woodwind or brass, or not like the overall sound of the strings .  But another may admire the same players greatly.

   Some orchestras are famous for certain sections ; the Philadelphia orchestra has long been admired for the sumptuous sound of its strings, and the Chicago symphony has long been famous  for its powerful yet smooth brass section, although some critics have accused these brass players of playing in too
loudly and  aggressively at times.   Two different critics can review the same concert and one may say the orchestra played terribly and the other may say that the musicians played like the gods ! 

   Having read countless reviews of orchestral concerts and recordings over the years, I've noticed that certain critics have certain orchestras they particularly admire ,and others which seem to be their Betes Noires.  Veteran concertgoers in different cities root for their hometown orchestras the way sports fans
root for their local teams. 

   Sometimes a critic will excoriate the horn section for cracking a lot of notes during a concert, and 
missed notes are an industrial  hazard in this field , as the horn is such a treacherous instrument to play. But critics should not make a federal case out of missed notes, especially isolated ones in an otherwise beautifully  played concert . If these critics would take the time and effort to take a couple of lessons on the instrument,
they might not write such captious reviews.

   But it's the spirit of the performance that counts ;  who cares if  there are a few glitches during a concert if  the performances  are  inspired ?  Any orchestra can have an off night ;  musicians are only human .



Posted: Aug 04 2011, 06:06 PM by the horn | with no comments
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