Infographic for Symphony Orchestras

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Beyond the Music [REVISED]

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Music is often said to be a universal language — no matter where you are from or what language you speak, people can speak through music. It definitely brings people together from all over the world, just as it brought the Bolívar Symphony to Carnegie Hall’s opening night. In Zachary Woolfe’s recent article in the New York Times, he briefly analyzes the orchestra’s performance before discussing in more depth about the financial and political support the orchestra might have from its country of origin, Venezuela. He argues that even though the musicians and musical director, Gustavo Dudamel, seem to choose to turn away from the economical issues that Venezuela is facing, audience members “should not grant [them]selves” the same luxury.

The “luxury” that Woolfe describes is the situation that most members of the Bolívar Symphony come from. The members of the orchestra were all part of the youth orchestra created by El Sistema, a government supported program that provides musical instruments and training for children all over Venezuela.  But the difference between when they were a youth orchestra and now as professional musicians is the state that Venezuela is in with tragic food crisis and crumbling of mental hospitals. But Woolfe observes that if anyone were to just look at the musicians in their tuxedos and dresses and how they were into the concert, no one would assume that they are coming from a politically difficult country.

Dudamel briefly mentioned in his opening speech that despite the “difficult times” in their country, the musicians were still in love with what they do and can put aside their differences to make music. True, the orchestra is government funded, and maybe that is why Dudamel’s speeches are very apolitical, but it shouldn’t change how the musicians perform and dress. Another music journalist for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, did just that. His review of the Bolívar Symphony’s performance was that of the music and not of its country.

As a musician myself, I’ve had the opportunity to play with other people from different countries and backgrounds, and we have been able to get along just fine, musically and personally. Once the music starts, the focus is on the music and art of making the music. I don’t think about how our performance could potentially showcase the current economic or political happenings of America. I don’t even think like this while watching performances by other symphonies. If I did, everyone would be too stressed to even perform or listen to the music, given the recent presidential election.

So is there a political underlying representation with the symphony? With the musicians, no. Woolfe says that if we demand to know where our chicken comes from, we should also know how the money funding these symphonies is being made; audience members should be aware of the politics involved with the orchestra. However, as a musician, I believe that musicians shouldn’t have to worry about anything else other than the music. Musical performances could be the respite that countries need.

Beauty of Mahler

The Los Angeles Philharmonic made its premiere performance at the Mondavi Center, conducted by music director and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Only thirty-five years of age, Dudamel is one of the youngest directors of the LA Phil and to take the symphony on tour to perform the ninth and final symphony by Gustavo Mahler. Dudamel and the LA Phil are currently touring the West Coast, and I was fortunate enough to witness the robust symphony perform under the  internationally renowned Maestro Dudamel himself. Usually when a symphony and their performance receives high praise from music critiques, I go in with too many expectations and am disappointed. However, I was nowhere near disappointed, just as nothing had prepared music critique of the New York Times Mark Swed “the sheer effusiveness of this performance.”

Mahler 9 is revolved around a farewell to this earth, and each movement has themes and subthemes of death. The first movement starts off with the second and first violins, followed by the harp which created angelic tunes that carried out into the beautiful hall. The brass continued the gorgeous melodies, then the woodwinds. The second movement takes on an easygoing theme of the Landler, an Austrian folk dance. It’s followed by the Rondo-Burlesk of the third movement, a sharp contrast and more dissonant theme than the previous.

The last movement, the Adagio (also the movement in the embedded Soundcloud link), was probably my favorite movement of the four, not just for the intense passages that it had showcasing the “final farewell” and accepting death, but also because of the performance shown by the orchestra and conductor. Swed described it perfectly — “Dudamel sculpted [the last movement] for beauty. Although he maintained a strong line throughout, he stopped time and again to smell the roses, lingering in exquisite sounds of fields, the kind you find only in modern music.”

Watching the musicians perform with such energy and intensity under the energy of Dudamel kept me on the edge of my seat. Granted the musicians are professional and have years of experience, I was still blown away by how well the musicians played with each other. I have seen performances in which only a certain percentage of the musicians were alive to all of what they were playing, but I think it’s safe to say that 95% of all musicians were, what Swed says, “taking expression to the outer limits”.

I was also impressed with the audience. Symphonies are written with several movements, and in between these movements it’s courtesy to not applaud. In all previous performances I have seen, there has been small applaud in between movements because generally people don’t know that you’re not supposed to clap. However, not a single person applauded during the piece which added to the intensity of the performance and added an extra wow-factor. Other performances, such as opera or ballet, encourage the audience to applaud after a solo performance or whenever they think is appropriate. Many people, musicians and non musicians, don’t know that during movements there should be no applause. Next time if you find yourself at one of these performances, take note of the program and see if there are any movements in the pieces. Even if you’re not an avid classical music listener like me, you might give the impression of being one.

Musician’s Rights

Why is it that in today’s culture, we don’t really hear about people going to orchestral concerts or raving over which Mahler symphony they last heard? Most people, especially in our youth culture, are talking about which DJ they last heard or which music festival they last went to. Many of my friends are willing to spend roughly $500 for a weekend of listening to popular artists from pop, indie, hip hop, and other musical genres that are not classical. My friends have no problem spending this money, but when it comes to watching the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform Mahler’s fifth symphony for $150, everyone has to suddenly save money. There has been an increase in demand for music festivals, the opposite of what Terry Teachout observes for orchestral concerts. He claims that the low demand in orchestral music and concerts plays a large part in the past and recent orchestra strikes. Terry doesn’t believe that these musicians should be on strike and asking for an increase in pay because their demand is low. The supply and demand for orchestral music is low, and musicians should respect the economy in that sense. He also acknowledges that musicians have had an increase in base salary by roughly $50,000 since the mid-twentieth century, so “that’s why orchestra members would do well to remember how far they’ve come.”

“Remember how far they’ve come”? Terry makes a point that fifty years ago, “full time” musicians had to have other jobs in order to make ends meet, and that today’s base salary for orchestral musicians ($165,000 base salary for SF Symphony musicians) is sufficient and above the median household in America. I think it’s great that musicians are being paid for their hard work and artistry. I did not play professionally, but having played in youth and college orchestras, I understand how much work that each musician puts in. It’s unfortunate that some people do not recognize this and won’t go out of their way to pay for a concert they don’t have high demand for. But for Terry to say that musicians should “remember how far they’ve come” is not appropriate.

Let’s take this logic and apply it to women’s rights. Women didn’t have the same rights as they do now back in the 1900’s. Women have come such a long way and earn the respect that they always should have. What if women were stripped the right to vote, and it was justified by people saying, “They should remember how far they’e come.” People would be outraged. Terry says that the reason this happens to orchestras is because “that’s the kind of thing that can end up happening in a world that doesn’t value your services as highly as you do.” Yes, it’s unfortunate that today’s pop culture doesn’t include Beethoven or Ravel directly. Even though the demand might be low, it doesn’t mean that we can let the importance and recognition of orchestral musicians and music digress. It doesn’t mean that the musicians deserve the pay cut because the rest of society has an under-appreciation of the product of their hard work and talent. Musicians shouldn’t just take it; they should continue to protect and fight for the recognition of their artistic services.

Becoming the Best

davieshall1One the biggest highlights of my childhood is being part of the orchestra. I first joined a youth chamber orchestra, an orchestra with just stringed instruments, when I was in sixth grade, and after a couple of years moved onto a larger symphony. As I was practicing for auditions, I had several youth symphonies to choose to join in the Bay Area. There were the “better” ones that people always talked about, such as the San Francisco Youth Symphony Orchestra (SFSYO). SFSYO was the orchestra many people wanted to be in because of all the perks. Compared to the other Bay Area symphonies, they were the ones who practiced in the beautiful Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco (the same hall that the San Francisco Symphony performs in), had sponsorship for their tours, and had opportunities to meet well known classical musicians. I don’t want to get into too many details, but you could think of SFSYO as the Porsche of youth orchestras in the Bay Area.

Similarly, there are also Porsches in the professional music world. Some of them are the more notable ones that even non-musicians have heard of, such as the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. These symphonies are populated with only the best of the best; auditions for a spot in the orchestra could come once a decade, if not more. The concertmaster, or first chair of the first violin section, of the San Francisco Symphony has held his seat since 2001, and the assistant concertmaster has had her seat since 1990. But what about other orchestras in the nation? There are countless of other great symphonies all over the country that have amazing and talented musicians.

For example, there’s the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) in Pennsylvania. Recently there has been talk, including from the orchestra members, that the orchestra’s reputation might be on the line because of one reason: paycheck cuts. Musicians in the orchestra said that cutting their pay sends a message to the public and other musicians that the orchestra isn’t as “great” as other orchestras, and this turns away potential and current members of the orchestra. The turnover rate would start to increase as the members start to seek other higher-paying orchestras. Moreover, it also could also affect music students’ perspective and cause them to turn elsewhere post-graduation.

As of today, negotiations between the PSO musicians and board of directors are at a stand still. There’s some chatter that they are working towards reaching an agreement, but in the meantime PSO musicians have been putting on their own free concerts while the schedule ones have been cancelled. It’s a nice gesture, what the musicians are doing, and even though it strips the public from the concerts that they were looking forward to, it’s a bold move that brings attention to the importance of funding the arts.

Beyond the Music

In a recent article in the New York Times, Zachary Woolfe analyzes the Bolivar Symphony’s performance at Carnegie Hall’s opening night. Woolfe, the classical music editor for the New York Times, briefly talks about the actual performance of the evening and then continues to politically analyze the orchestra and its musicians. Not many people are aware of the political impact and representation that symphonies have today, and Woolfe calls this out. The Bolivar Symphony comes from Venezuela, where there is an economic and international struggle. Woolfe observes that if anyone were to just look at the musicians in their tuxedos and dresses and how they were into the concert, no one would assume that they are coming from a politically difficult country. In addition, the conductor, Mr. Gustavo Dudamel briefly mentioned in his speech that despite the “difficult times” in their country, the musicians were still in love with what they do. Mr. Dudamel also believes that despite the political difficulties, the musicians come together and can put aside their differences to make music. Woolfe concurs that the musicians have the “luxury” to be free of political ties, but cannot say the same for those in the audience. He points out the beauty of music, that it is a universal language that brings people together no matter what background each individual musician might come from. And, in my experience, I believe this is true. As a musician myself, I’ve had the opportunity to play with other people from different countries and backgrounds, and we have been able to get along just fine, musically and personally. Once the music starts, the focus is on the music and art of making the music. Woolfe, however, also makes a point that there is no “apolitical culture,” moreover “apolitical culture consumers”. How was the Bolivar Symphony funded? Why is it, that despite the economic struggles its country is going through, the symphony and its musicians seem at bliss in music? Woolfe says that if we demand to know where our chicken comes from, we should also know how the money funding these symphonies is being made. I agree that as audience members, we should be attentive to the political underlying of the symphony and its music. However, also as a musician, I believe that musicians shouldn’t have to worry about anything else other than the music.