On Orchestral Identity

On Orchestral Identity
June 29, 2020 cborelli

When I was young, it was abundantly clear that certain combinations of orchestras and their music directors had a unique sound. Whether it was Toscanini and the NBC, Ormandy and Philadelphia, or Karajan and Berlin, among so many others, these partnerships were celebrated for how distinct they were. No one paid much attention to the repertoire being performed, as long as they could recognize who was playing it.

Times have changed. Period performance practice is becoming more regular on recordings and in the concert hall. Orchestras comprise musicians from more diverse cultural backgrounds than ever before. It is my belief that in many cases, we are losing some of the individual personality that made the great orchestras, well—great.

What questions do you have about how things have changed or if we are going in the right direction?

Questions and suggestions (7)

  1. anonymous 3 months ago

    Maestro, my biggest question is: how do we get back to that place of unique orchestral sounds. Increased diversity and technical proficiency of players is of course a good thing. However, time was that most major world orchestras had reputations for a particular sounds. Nowadays, I’m inclined to agree most orchestras sound the same despite being under different batons. The only distinction to be drawn among ensembles is the relative quality of the musicians. The idiomatic and distinct soundscapes seem to be gone. Not sure how to change things but I’d welcome it.

  2. Stephen Lord 3 months ago

    Leonard, I agree with the above. Today the level of training and the amount of well trained players is higher than ever before. I have found, however, that it is just as much about the individual qualities of each player that bring, with the ideas of the conductor, a truly unique sound. If so many players are homogenized in their training, world viewpoint, appreciation of the individual factors of all the arts, then a truly unique ensemble is not possible. Sure, they will play together in perfect sync and in tune but it requires individual identities to make a coherent whole of a group. When NBC was created, it was for these qualities of the players, not just their technical prowess. I have found the same thing with singers. They mostly sing well, but so few have a story to tell and that they ache to tell.

  3. Roland Flessner 3 months ago

    This is a fascinating and complex subject. From my early days as a teenage classical music enthusiast, orchestras tended to sound distinctive, and I could often guess the conductor and orchestra, even with a recording played on a table radio. I wish I could claim to have carefully cultivated this ability, but it appeared with little or no effort on my part.

    I’ll identify some interdependent factors: a conductor who cultivates a personal stamp, an orchestra with a distinctive sound, and hall acoustics and recorded sound. For example, a Reiner/CSO recording, or one with Munch and the BSO, will typically be easy to identify because of these. Growing up, I was particularly fond of these, along with Szell/Cleveland. (Ormandy built a superb orchestra with his Philadelphians, but his performances could seem bland and undercharacterized. Bernstein/NY seemed nervous and the acoustics at Lincoln Center weren’t helpful; Manhattan Center recordings were better.)

    It is true, and lamentable, that orchestral sound has lost some of its regional flavor, even while the quality of execution has risen. Although I’m a big fan of both Ernest Ansermet and Rafael Kubelik, it’s hard to complain when L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the BRSO now sound so much better than they did a few decades ago. I haven’t heard a terribly recent recording of the Czech Philharmonic, but the Karl Ančerl and Vaclav Neumann recordings are magical: superb ensemble playing, x-ray clarity and transparency, and that lovely vibrato, particularly in the horns and clarinets.

    A distinctive sound may be enhanced or sabotaged by a conductor or acoustics, respectively. Years ago I heard an outstanding Mahler First at Ravinia under Kondrashin, and despite typically scant rehearsal time for summer concerts, the CSO might well have been the Kondrashin Philharmonic, so persuasively did it project the conductor’s personality. Conversely, I heard Staatskapelle Dresden with Christian Thielemann at Orchestra Hall, and from my particularly bad seat, this gloriously distinctive orchestra sounded like any old (but very good) ensemble; no knock on Thielemann.

    While it is true that today’s generalized sound is a loss, we do still have much to celebrate. Listen to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra playing Brahms under Chailly or Beethoven under Blomstedt; the orchestra retains its rich, burnished character with a leaner accent. Truly we are living in a golden age when we can enjoy both these modern performances and a more traditional approach, e.g., Kurt Masur’s Leipzig Beethoven.

    I’ll close with a couple striking examples: Vaclav Neumann’s “voice” rings through no matter the orchestra; from his Peer Gynt suites recorded in Leipzig, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” rises to almost unbearable intensity precisely because it is so controlled. And Maestro Szell, the epitome of straitlaced fastidiousness, reveals the humor in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony as i’ve not heard in any other recording. Sort of like Nixon going to China.

    Thanks for the opportunity to expostulate!

  4. Stephen Hardie 3 months ago

    One of the biggest factors is the amount of time the chief conductor spends with “their” orchestra each year. Those conductors you mentioned above would spend most of each year with that orchestra, almost to the exclusion of working anywhere else, and were the overwhelming influence on the sound of that orchestra. They also tended spend more years in those positions – in some cases, decades. Now the top conductors seem determined to see how many orchestras and/or opera companies they can work with each year, and over their whole career. Some will even accept two (or more) positions as chief conductor/music director of different organisations simultaneously (and the attached salaries), and their influence is considerably diluted. In their absence each orchestra plays with a dozen different conductors for a week or two at a time, none of whom have any long term responsibility for the orchestra. In fact they will probably try to rock the boat as little as possible, because they want to be invited back. So they orchestra players themselves take more ownership of the product, which can be good if everyone is on the same page, but the increased diversity of backgrounds of those players means this is unlikely.

  5. Paula Akbar 3 months ago

    Really interesting subject and great replies. More than twenty-five years ago Dave Bragunier, former personnel manager of the National Symphony, told a pool of summer music students something I never forgot. He said that within the near future all [American] orchestras would sound the same, largely because of the behind-the-screen audition process. Many of the old school conductors hand-picked their musicians for a particular orchestral sound and style. Today’s audition committees seem to choose perfection over interpretation and style from players who do not “stand out” and who will most likely blend. Too much personality/individuality in sound and/or interpretation might be considered — too much personality. Also (old fart speaking here), past maestros had direct ties to the teachers and composers of the original schools of music styles. In my later orchestral days (I retired four years ago) many of the younger conductors chose their own independent interpretations, erasing years of traditional bowings, phrasing, articulations, and tempos. What say you, Leonard?

  6. Marc Gordon 3 months ago

    My thoughts come from a very “micro” observation. One of the possible reasons for this comes from my experience in the oboe world. For the past few decades, oboist have changed the pattern of private study. When I was in school and subjected to “drop the needle tests” (wow, that dates me doesn’t it), my professors were surprised that I would not only name the piece but what orchestra was on the recording. I could tell by the the sound of the oboe. The oboists in the Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis (then) had very distinctive tone qualities and styles. These were very recognizable to us oboe students. Oboists who studied with these teachers wold naturally be influenced by their playing and teaching concepts. As a teacher over the past few decades, I saw students who studied with a particular oboist would travel to take lessons from a teacher in a different location and be influenced by the different style, tone quality and, in our case, reed making. I suspect that over time exposure to different influences this resulted in a melding of the components that contributed to the style of a particular oboist. I find it more difficult to identify a specific school of oboe playing these days than years ago. I don’t opine that this is either good or bad…just different. It seems logical that this could be a factor with other instrument pedagogy as well which could be a contributing factor to the issue discussed about orchestral sound and style.

  7. Roland Flessner 3 months ago

    Marc Gordon, I really appreciate your observations, having played double reeds, mainly oboe, in my student days. Surely the oboe is the most distinctive sounding wind instrument, and from my earliest days as a listener, an exposed oboe part was often a dead giveaway in ID’ing the orchestra. Just to name a few in American orchestras, the work of Ray Still here in Chicago, John De Lancie in Philadelphia, and the Gomberg brothers (Harold in NY and Ralph in Boston) could be recognized instantly. Hearing the oboes of the Concertgebouw and VPO was a special pleasure; the instruments used by the VPO are different from the standard soprano oboe.

    Moving right along, the conductor of our small and not very accomplished college/community orchestra suffered a lapse in judgment when he had us read through the second suite of “Daphnis et Chloé”; our principal flautist was very good, but having her play the flute solo at sight was a terrible disservice to her. This piece was so far beyond our abilities that start to finish, it was unrecognizable, and it mercifully had disappeared from our stands at the next rehearsal. The second-chair flautist was one of my best friends, and drawing from my small collection and several libraries, we assembled at least half a dozen recordings and ran a comparison. Julie and I agreed that the clear winner was Doriot Anthony Dwyer in the 1955 recording by Munch and the BSO. That’s a recording that still sounds good and a performance that has never been surpassed, as long as you can get past the wordless chorus singing “loo” instead of “ahh”; perhaps they were overdue for a bathroom break?

    I see that Doriot Anthony Dwyer died in March at 98. And by the way, at https://www.stokowski.org/Principal_Musicians_American_Orchestras.htm, you can find a listing of orchestral musicians through the decades.

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