On ‘the amateur orchestra’

I’ve recently finished reading Stuart Feder’s The Life of Charles Ives, in the Cambridge Musical Lives series. Ives has become, since the Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Unanswered Question eighteen months ago, something of a favourite of mine. I can’t speak up for the biography – it has a great many faults – but it did put the Concord Sonata and Symphony No. 4 back on my playlist. And, equally as important, it prompted me to rethink an interesting issue for orchestras like ours.

The University of St Andrews Symphony Orchestra is an amateur music group.  There’s no getting around this.  We’re of a good standard for an amateur group – most of our players are Grade VIII holders or the local equivalent, and some come to us with Diplomas in hand – but we are not professional.  And we’re not even a ‘proto-professional’ group, such as the NYO or a music-college orchestra intends to be.  Occasionally we have players who go on to make music their career, though the point of our group certainly isn’t to prepare musicians for the profession.

So the question of what our orchestra is for is a difficult one, tied up with what role the institution of amateur music fulfils in society more broadly.  It’s a cultural training ground, no doubt, for performer and audience alike.  It provides a setting for us all to get to know good music better, outwith some of the alienating contexts that orchestral music is often forced to occupy.  (I wouldn’t now be listening to Concord Sonata and reading the Essays Before, if it hadn’t been for playing Unanswered Question eighteen months ago.)  It performs a social function, too: you only need to see us all half an hour after the rehearsal to realise that.

But Ives seemed to me to have it right that the most important function of amateur scene is to provide a genuinely unrestricted space for music.  One reading of Ives’ decision not to participate in professional musical culture it that he feared that the criterion of success imposed by the profession would interfere with genuine innovation and creativity.  Remaining an ‘amateur’, Ives didn’t need to earn money by writing, and therefore wasn’t at the behest of commercialism and musical fashion.  He remained autonomous.

And it’s odd, in a way, that the word ‘amateur’ doesn’t carry these sorts of connotations more directly.  When we hear an orchestra referred to as ‘amateur’, we don’t tend to think first of autonomy.  Neither do we think first of the fact that the members of an amateur orchestra are all there because they think the project valuable, rather than because they are being financially incentivised.  But all of these things are worth keeping in mind.

Obviously, the pieces you write for us will have to be playable.  This is one consequence of writing for an amateur orchestra, and it’s one we hope you won’t find too constraining.  But we hope also that you’ll feel free to write whatever you want to.  You shouldn’t feel constrained by any style, by any trend, or indeed by any feeling that you need to be ‘innovative’ or ‘new’.  Our status means that we’re in the lucky position to conduct a search for good music that is totally unrestricted.

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3 Responses to On ‘the amateur orchestra’

  1. Simon Fricker says:

    What a delightful piece of writing – so much ‘heart’, and imbued with a welcoming sense of ‘community’!

  2. Rohan Shotton says:

    Autonomy is not limitless, though, as the amateur orchestra is not a unity. It is perhaps less united even than professional orchestras. Obviously, amateurs’ reliance on pleasing the public in order to obtain funding is less, but there are still costs, and not all of these can be covered by the players themselves. Professionals play as they are told or join the job queue. An amateur orchestra, though, needs to be organised in such a way as to retain its players, some of whom may be open to exploring new music, and others may prefer to guarantee/simulate and well-attended concert. Thus repertoire has to be chosen to suit a range of views; it has to introduce players and audience to new music (such as Ives) whilst ensuring that a full orchestra can be sustained.

    Professionals leave the decisions to management, but they face a parallel problem. Introducing audiences to undiscovered gems is all very well, but a deserted season precedes an unambitious one, as happened to the Halle in the 1990s, almost leading to its closure. A common solution to this is to balance new with old in concerts, assuming a conceivably arbitrary theme. The Czech Phil, at the Proms this year, played a concert in which Martinu’s 6th Symphony and Janacek’s Ballad of Blanik were presented, flanked by a popular Dvorak Overture (Carnival) and Symphony (8), and Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Clearly, the Czech theme for the day was replaced by a broader concept of nationalism. Had the repertoire been decided upon based on contrasting musical nationalism, they could have produced a far more convincing argument. However, as a net for bringing in an audience, the Symphony and Concerto worked very well.

    The Competition obviously presents new music, but the depth to which this is explored and developed is determined by where the value of the concert is perceived as lying. Is it more important to expose a large audience to a small amount of new music, or risk a small audience hearing a broader selection of unknown works?

  3. Thanks all for your comments and to Chris for the original article.

    Regarding Rohan’s comments; I personally feel that building good rapport between both orchestra and audience, and between members of the orchestra and new repertoire, is the strongest way to deliver interesting, varied programmes whilst keeping the books balanced. It’s a matter of trust and balance that can take several years to mature. If an audience trusts an ensemble they won’t shy away from the occasional adventurous moment in a programme. Likewise, members of an amateur orchestra who understand that a programme has been constructed with their interests taken into consideration are unlikely to make a run for the door. It’s a difficult thing to get right, however, and a lot of hard work can be undone very quickly if you make a mistake.

    We live in a time where every work of the classical canon is available to download with a click in a web browser. Aside from “the thrill of the live performance”, where does that leave live performers, professional or amateur? Adventurous programming – the linking of otherwise disparate works and art forms into a unified whole – has to be the new domain of the live performer if we are to keep concerts exciting and invigorating. It’s not about “educating” an audience (which is possibly a little patronising), but sharing something that you genuinely find very exciting yourself. A concert, particularly in the amateur world, is a celebration; of a shared enjoyment of the music, the work required to prepare the concert and of the music itself.

    Finally, I’d like to reiterate the main point of the original article to the composers whom Chris was addressing; the competition exists to find excellence in new composition and as such works will not ever be judged on “saleability”. How the pieces are presented to orchestra and audience is the management’s responsibility and shouldn’t concern anyone who is entering the competition.


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