Category Archives: Music Musings

Do orchestras really need conductors?


NewWSO Conductor Benjamin Niemczyk

The age-old debate about whether a conductor is actually necessary is still alive and well. After all, hasn’t the composer given all the instructions necessary for playing beautiful music?

The pro-conductor camp has been given a boost by this recent and very articulate article by Ivan Hewitt (“What do Conductors Do?The Telegraph, May 1, 2014) for the necessity of a conductor in a large symphony orchestra. He also illustrates the difference between what a new conductor versus a seasoned conductor can evoke from an ensemble:

…Even when they don’t actually collapse, performances led by beginner conductors always have a strange blank quality. It’s as if the violins are deaf to the cellos, and horns to the woodwind; there’s no guiding spirit which makes everything cohere.

Last week, at a masterclass given by eminent conductor Bernard Haitink at the Easter Festival in Lucerne, I witnessed several young conductors who, at this level of basic intelligibility, were all pretty competent. But the experience of the maestro, as he talked about the piece they were conducting (Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) showed that they still had a long way to go.

A common problem was a failure to pay attention to the composer’s markings in the score. “Playing what’s written” sounds dull, but actually it’s really hard, because what’s written needs imagination to be brought to life. Haitink pointed out a telling indication in Mahler’s symphony: “geheimnisvoll” — literally, “secret-full”. How on earth do you make something sound secretive? The young conductor on the podium was flummoxed, so Haitink seized the baton. And instantly a dusky, mysterious quality appeared, bearing down on the music like encroaching dusk…[link to full article]

This article is a good reminder that an orchestra is not a gathering of individual musicians playing their own parts on their own instruments. An orchestra is one cohesive unit playing a single piece, and the conductor is the person who reminds us of that fact.

Fun and Games

It’s the start of a new membership year with the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra, and what better way to kick it off than to welcome members old and new with some orchestra humor?

A hilarious set of memes was put together by someone who has obviously played in their fair share of orchestras. Click HERE to judge the author’s accuracy for yourself. Some of our members report that the section stereotypes are spot on, in most cases embarrassingly so!

If you don’t know what a “meme” is, Google defines it as “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.”

Orchestras can be serious, and NewWSO is serious about the music and about playing to the best of our ability. But we are also a fun-loving bunch and don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our primary motivation is to make music together, plain and simple. If you are thinking about joining but are somewhat intimidated about jumping into an orchestra setting, you’ll find that once you get to the rehearsal space that you will be welcomed no matter what your age or ability. More information on joining can be found on our website, Join us!

Flash Mobs and Outdoor Concerts: Good In Theory, But…

The NewWSO has been asked by several venues and several of its own members if we can perform an outdoor concert or execute a “flash mob” like the famous YouTube video of an ensemble emerging from the woodwork to play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy” to an adoring crowd.

While these ideas seem good in theory, the execution is another matter. Without excellent sound reinforcement (and in the case of a slick YouTube video/commercial, professional camera work), outdoor performances might be a great experience for the audience as background music to a nice day in the park.

For the players, however, wind, weather, insects, and other things that come with playing in the great outdoors might be something to think carefully about before trying it. For these reasons, NewWSO has thus far not attempted any outdoor gigs. It doesn’t mean we won’t in the future, but sound reinforcement and shelter will be key components.

Last week the New York Times ran an article about the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center’s first ever outdoor concert at the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park. Interesting note: iPads were used by some of the ensemble a solution to the wind problem. Now if only iPads could repel those pesky mosquitoes!


The Accordion’s Place in the Orchestra

The accordion is not generally known as a traditional orchestral instrument. A chamber music performance at this year’s Mostly Mozart 2013 Festival this past Thursday featuring a solo accordion arrangement of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, played by accordionist William Schimmel, would seem to corroborate this generality, even if the performance elicits surprise and delight at the fact that the instrument utters classical music at all.

The accordion’s place in a traditional orchestra playing traditional orchestral repertoire, while rare, is not unheard of. This Wikipedia article lists classical works for which composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote for accordion as an orchestral instrument.

The NewWSO is lucky to have our very own accordionist. Most of the time she plays oboe parts (after all, the accordion is technically a reed instrument!), but the accordion really shines in the Shostakovich Waltz No. 2 (from Suite for Variety Orchestra) and in the Satie Gymnopedie II (orch. Debussy), where the instrument lends an air of Parisian “je ne sais quoi” to the impressionistic mood of the piece.

Here’s an excerpt from the Shostakovich, superbly performed by the Berlin Philharmoniker, where you can catch a brief glimpse of the accordion to the left of the saxophones at the very end of the clip:


Birds of a Feather? NewWSO and The Berliner Philharmoniker

What does the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra have in common with what is arguably currently the best orchestra on the planet? More than you think!

In this excellent article, Tony Woodcock, the President of the New England Conservatory of Music, reveals the inner workings of the Berliner Philharmoniker, or as we know them in the States, the Berlin Philharmonic. Especially interesting is how they govern themselves, how the musicians are self-starting when it comes to organizing chamber groups and activities in the community, and most of all how they are constantly adapting to an ever-changing world. This is in direct contrast to how professional orchestras in the US seem to be dropping like flies due not only to lack of funding, but also due to lack of relevance which ultimately leads to lack of funding.

NewWSO’s goal is to remain relevant for the long haul, and we can learn a lot from the Berlin Phil in this respect. In fact, we are already doing some of what they do, for example:

  • Musician-managed chamber groups, surprisingly similar to NewWSO’s growing chamber program, which enhances the experience for both our musicians and our audiences:

Besides playing in the Orchestra, every musician is expected to be a soloist, perform chamber music and contribute to the overall vision of the Orchestra. Looking at the website, I counted some 30 recognized ensembles including the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, Amarcord-Quartet, Philharmonic Piano Quartet, and Berlin Baroque Soloists. I was told there are at least another six not cited. These ensembles, many of which we see on the international touring circuit, are organized and managed by the musicians, working as entrepreneurs from within the orchestra. These groups are also presented at the smaller chamber music hall at the Philharmonie. The musicians prepare their programmes in their own time and at their own expense. They will only receive additional compensation for the series at the Philharmonie. The qualities of chamber music are seen as being at the centre of their work as an Orchestra allowing them artistic collaborations that inform the character of the full orchestra.

  • Community outreach, again not unlike NewWSO:

The musicians’ work touches many, from kindergarteners to prisoners, from teachers to lifelong learners. There is no contractual obligation for the musicians to do this work. They are paid no additional fees — just travel expenses. They do it because they understand the inherent transformative power of music and want to share that with audiences who have not previously experienced it.

So dive in, read the rest of the article, and imagine what the US would be like if the The Big Five orchestras (or six or more, depending on who’s counting) were all like this. Pure bliss.

You mean “crescendo” doesn’t always have to end loudly?

A rehearsal isn’t a rehearsal without Conductor Ben Niemczyk imploring, us, several times over, to play piano – softly, quietly, gently, gracefully. Many of us stopped our “formal” (was it ever that?) music training after high school, some after college. In elementary and high school, the goal was just to make sound, usually loud sound. Dynamics were not as much of priority as hitting the correct notes. However forte always seems to be easier than piano.

Nowadays, we are older and playing original editions of great symphonies rather than arrangements for school band or orchestra. But perhaps some of us are still stuck in our school-time ways, choosing pitches and rhythm over dynamics, which we know now to be essential to the shape, interest, and excitement of a great piece. Especially vexing are those dynamics in Beethoven’s works, where a crescendo sometimes ends not with a bang, but in the quietest piano. Another (frustrating!) example is when he notates crescendo from pianissimo… piano.

Here is an excerpt from a recent NY Times Op-Ed article by Miles Hoffman, the violist of the American Chamber Players and music commentator for “Morning Edition” on NPR, on the true meaning of crescendo – what it is and what it isn’t, both in literary and musical usage:

…Crescendos don’t have to end loudly: you can make a crescendo from extremely soft to moderately soft, or from moderately soft to moderately loud. And even if you make the most enormous crescendo in the world, you will not have “reached” anything until you get to the top. The one thing crescendo does not mean, in other words, and never has meant, is “climax.”

So the next time you read a sentence like, “The battle raged, until on the third day it reached a crescendo,” you will know that the author of the sentence has, to paraphrase Fowler’s Modern English Usage, injured the language….

Read the full article here, and next time you are tempted to play as loud as you can at the end of your crescendo….don’t! Unless Beethoven says so.

An Oldie But A Goodie: Joshua Bell Plays the Subway, Pulls In $32.17 for a 43 minute Performance

If you haven’t yet read this Washington Post article from 2007, do yourself a favor and please read the whole thing (yes, it’s long) and watch the time-lapse video of JB’s performance here: Washington Post 2007 Article on Joshua Bell posing as a subway musician

If you have read the article already, it’s worth reading again. The article and the experiment that JB agreed to raise many questions about the role of art, particularly music, in all of our busy lives. Pay special attention to this section:

Picarello knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn’t recognize him; he hadn’t seen a recent photo, and besides, for most of the time Picarello was pretty far away. But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing. On the video, you can see Picarello look around him now and then, almost bewildered.

“Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn’t registering. That was baffling to me.”

When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he’d never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He’s a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn’t play the violin much, anymore.

When he left, Picarello says, “I humbly threw in $5.” It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.

Does he have regrets about how things worked out?

The postal supervisor considers this.

“No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it’s not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever.”

We wish Mr. Picarello lived nearby so that he could pick up his violin again and play with us!