This past weekend I played a concert with a college orchestra. I use the terms "college" and orchestra" loosely. This tiny ensemble was nearly half filled with local musicians, players I know from other jobs - and even this quantity of pros was not able to elevate the gig significantly.
The tiny group of students really struggled with intonation, balance, counting, articulation, and just about every other metric I can name. They had had a long rehearsal in the afternoon before the concert, and were mentally and physically worn out. We dragged ourselves - the conductor, bless his heart, dragged us - through a new work by Robert Paterson, the Mozart Double Piano Concerto (what a charming piece! And beautifully played by the two soloists despite the chaos behind them), and Brahms’s Second Symphony.
This job was hard for me. When you are surrounded by ghastly intonation, it’s almost impossible to sound good. And the harder you try to at least do your own job well, the more stressful it can feel, until you are making dumb mistakes just like the students around you and second-guessing the pitch center you have worked to achieve, and really just putting out a sub-par performance all around. Which is frustrating, because of course you feel like your own wondrous professionalism should make a difference to the group and raise the level, but in the heat of the moment no one around you has the wherewithal to notice it or respond to it, and eventually, despite yourself, you give up and just grind on through to the end.
I left the stage, and wondered what on earth we had just accomplished. Brahms 2 is a great work. Great orchestras have performed it, and recorded it. This tiny, terrible performance, by maybe 35 people FOR maybe 35 people, felt bad and I didn’t know that value had been added to the world by our evening’s work. Brahms probably wasn't happy.
Then, as I was packing up, the clarinet player introduced himself to me. Complimented my playing. Was obviously energized by the performance.
Was this your first Brahms Symphony?
YES! It’s amazing music! I feel like I’ve heard Brahms before, and been bored by it - but this symphony is so great!
And that. THAT. Right there - that’s why we do it.
One college student, who hadn’t liked or understood Brahms before, and would not have sought out the works of this great master, had sat for a semester in orchestra getting his ear attuned to the harmonic language and hearing the interplay of voices and feeling the harmonic drive, and it moved him. It changed him. From now on, he’ll be the guy who hears a snippet of Brahms Second on the radio and hums along. He’ll be the person who buys a ticket to a symphony concert because this piece is being played. And even though he won’t be in the middle of it, he’ll be able to hear it as though he is. It’s a different experience, and a magical one. Who knows? Maybe over the next few years this little college orchestra will introduce him to more works he hadn’t realized were good. Maybe he’ll start to seek out more major romantic symphonies.
That night, as my professional colleagues and I slunk back to our cars, feeling demoralized, one proud student had had a real experience.