Ask Jason

June 14, 2020

Robert asks…

"Do traditional symphony orchestras prefer to play ‘the old standbys’ for lack of a better term, or do they tend to find stepping out of their ‘comfort zone,’ refreshing and exciting?”

That’s a great question. Honestly, what I actually thought you asked was do I prefer to learn new pieces or do I prefer studying old pieces, and then I turned on my phone right before we hit record and thought, “oh that’s not actually what you asked.” I’m going to try to address both…

In the very first one of these we did, the question was about interpretation, and I was talking about relearning old pieces and coming back to them and finding new things. That is really fulfilling because musicians are human beings and we like to do things that we’re already good at. We enjoy playing pieces that we know well and we feel like we have a lot of expertise on. It’s a totally different thing and requires a new skill set to learn something new where you don’t feel as sure of yourself so there is always a fear factor there.

I can say as a cello player in particular, if I have a really hard piece to learn, it is easy to procrastinate. I think “I’ve got to practice, I’ve got to practice… first I really need to clean the refrigerator, and then I’ll practice.” It is all fear of failure. You fear yourself out of practicing.

But once you get beyond that hump and get learning the piece, it is a really rewarding process, because when you get through it, you know that feeling of “I really learned this piece.” It is rewarding because if, say, Tchaikovsky had written a 7th symphony and we discovered it, we’d still kind of know how Tchaikovsky goes, but with a really brand new type of piece, when you’ve really cracked the code, it’s very fulfilling. It is like solving a puzzle… Or like a reading a book. Some books are better than others but you almost always think, “I’m glad I read that.”

It is actually not so much like a puzzle; it is more like an escape room because you have a finite amount of time until the concert and sometimes you really do only feel like you got 80% or 90% of the puzzle solved by the time of the concert and they take your picture and you’re not smiling. But when it comes off great, there is nothing like it.

Too, I have sort of a more personal contact with a new piece because the composer is alive, and even if I don’t know the composer, just the fact that they are alive at the same time as me, and working, and she has an email address, and I’ve seen her cat on Instagram… I feel a certain kind of responsibility to advocate for her work. I’m always the advocate for Beethoven of course, but Beethoven doesn’t have an email address and he is only alive from the chest up these days [only a bust]. If I play the Mozart “Haffner” Symphony on a concert, well that’s a “historically significant” piece. If it doesn’t sound good, nobody blames Mozart. But if I play this person’s new piece, and the audience doesn’t like it, it may be because of the piece, or it may be because I didn’t give it the presentation that it deserves.

So I really work hard, if I am going to do a new piece, to really do it well. Sometimes in some orchestras or with certain conductors there’s a process where the conductor gets a huge amount of time to rehearse the traditional symphony, and then there’s a medium amount of time for the concerto and the soloist, and there is this new piece, and it is going to get a tiny little bit of time. Columbia Orchestra members will tell you we don’t really do it that way. We spend some time to work on the new pieces, even at the expense of something that we are more familiar with precisely because we are more familiar with it, because we feel that responsibility.

I think it’s a little easier now in the 21st century. The 20th century was a hard century for new pieces. We had a World War, then we had another World War, then we made a bomb which could allow us to destroy the entire civilization, which is a whole new thing. And society reacted to that. Many thinkers said history has taken us to the eve of destruction so we've got to start turning some corners.

If paintings used to look like this, let’s paint them some other way. If we used to write poems like this, let’s try writing them some other way. That presents a particular challenge for music. If you are writing poetry or a play or a novel, you’re using words and you can use them in a very experimental way because we deal with those as building blocks of our everyday speech all the time. And if you’re a painter and it’s something that maybe used to be representational and now it’s only semi- more abstract, or it’s very abstract, all those images, you’re playing with the kinds of things that our eyes see all the time.

We don’t really talk to each other so much in [sings] F-sharps and B-flats; that’s not the grammar of our everyday life. So when composers start messing with those materials, they’re messing with materials that are less familiar to the uninitiated.

When 20th-century composers tried to go in different directions, throwing out some of the conventions from the past, and changing the rules and trying new things, it was harder to bring audiences along. And what made it even more challenging, was this composer went this way, and this composer went this other way, and this composer went a totally different way.

In the 19th century, yes, it was “Brahms versus Wagner” and their music was different from each other. But in the 20th century, you had Samuel Barber and Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage and Jimi Hendrix, all doing music at the same time. They don’t even sound like they are from the same planet! That was very disorienting to audiences.

It was disorienting to performers too, but there was an advantage to performers over the long haul (and of course there was an advantage to everybody because that period still managed to produce some of the greatest music of all time). But for performers, if I’m a good performer, I’m now going to teach myself to do Barber really well, and to do Stockhausen really well, and to teach myself to do Cage really well… which has its own set of aesthetics. I’d love to have taught myself to do Jimi Hendrix really well but it doesn’t seem to be working out. I have the same kind of guitar he played, but for some reason mine just doesn’t sound like his…

I will never forget what one of my good friends said back when I was in the New Horizons Chamber Ensemble in the 90s. This was a marvelous group started by friends, and it was all contemporary music: very eclectic programming and all new stuff. One of the violinists won a big full-time job at a major American orchestra, and I remember her saying that she thought the reason why she won the audition was because she had done all of these different kinds of new works, and that just brings you entirely new tools when you go back and play Mozart and Brahms and Debussy.

Now Robert actually asked what do orchestras like doing. Well I don’t know... With the Columbia Orchestra, we’ll do a new piece and a bunch of people will say “hey, thank you for programming that, that was a lot of fun, I’m really glad we did that” and a few people will say “that wasn’t my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed the process of doing that” and you’ll have people who’ll just think “that was lousy” whether or not they actually say it! We’re all human beings and different strokes… And the Columbia Orchestra doesn’t get as tired of doing the “war horses” because we only have four concerts a year, so we only perform Beethoven 5 every eight to twelve years as opposed to every two or three years for groups that perform every weekend. We did Schumann’s Third Symphony a couple of years ago, and I’m sure it was a Howard County premiere!

So thank you very much for the question. It has inspired me that I need to start making some play lists. I almost did it as part of this, but I should take some time to figure out and introduce some newer things to everyone since we all have a little extra time on our hands, so that will be a good job for me. In the mean time, please keep the questions coming!

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