Youth orchestras: killing two stereotypes at once




Young people these days can’t be pried away from their cell phones. They’re lazy and undisciplined. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype. Classical music is just about dead according to obituaries that seem to appear in magazine articles and well-read blogs every year. No one cares about such old-fashioned music except an increasingly aging population. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype. Don’t be fooled. Youth orchestras all over the country (and all over the world, for that matter, in case the stereotypes cross international borders) work very hard to polish performances of the standard orchestral repertoire. They love the music, … Continue reading

The Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay




How did the town of Cateura, Paraguay get an internationally known youth orchestra? It sits on the largest landfill in the country. Its citizens pick through the trash to find things to recycle and sell. It’s almost as if both the contents of the landfill and the people who live on it are discards, out of sight and out of mind for most of the rest of the country. The story begins with Luis Szarán, since 1990 the conductor of the Symphonic Orchestra of Asunción. He grew up poor, the eighth child of Paraguayan farmers. He had musical talent. A … Continue reading

A pre-history of orchestra conductors




Long ago, the leader of the instrumental ensemble at a court or large church was called the concert master. Orchestras came later. Nowadays, orchestras have a concert master. The public notices this person mostly because he or she is the last member of the orchestra to come on stage. The conductor comes next. The earliest orchestras had no conductor the way we think of conductors. Conducting as we know it, was well known by the fairly small choirs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In fact, some choirmasters held a rolled up sheaf of paper in their hand (or in … Continue reading

Serpent, ophicleide, bombardon: the tuba’s forerunners




The tuba is the youngest regular member of the orchestra. Quite a bit of orchestral music is older, and it had to depend on one of three other instruments to provide a bass voice for the brass section. The serpent, ophicleide, and bombardon long ago disappeared from public view, but with the rise of historically informed performance, they have returned to concert halls at least occasionally. Serpent Of all brass instruments before the invention of valves in 1815, only the trombone could play a complete chromatic scale. Trombones were among the major instrument groups during the Renaissance. They were made … Continue reading

Musical predictions for the new year




No, I’m not going to try to make predictions for musical happenings in 2011. It’s much more fun to look at someone else’s predictions from years past and see how they turned out. I just got back from Christmas vacation, and I confess to hunting for something I could type out quickly. This gem of a prediction appears in the January 1, 1895 issue of The Musical Times. One Arthur E. Grimshaw wrote a letter to the editor in response to a concert review the previous month. It seems that the critic had complained that the loud trombones spoiled an … Continue reading

An excellent high-school orchestra from Indiana




A friend of mine sent me a link to the video below and said to prepare to be impressed. It is a prize-winning performance of the Carmel (Indiana) High School Symphony Orchestra playing “Jupiter” from The Planets by Gustav Holst. As a result of this performance last May, they were named the Indiana State Orchestra Champion. My friend tells me they also won in 2008 playing the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and “Mambo” from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. These performances are also available on YouTube. This performance is better than many concerts I have heard by prestigious … Continue reading

Building an audience for symphony orchestra concerts — with video games?




According to stereotype, classical music in general and symphony orchestra concerts in particular appeal to an aging elite. That perception justifies cutting orchestras from schools, booking orchestras for school assemblies or college arts series much less frequently than in the recent past, and changing classical music radio stations to other formats. Orchestras must develop strategies for building an audience in order to survive. Here is a video about the kind of orchestral music used as the sound tracks to video games. Someone on an email list I follow sent it along. Several orchestras have presented entire concerts devoted to video … Continue reading

Jullien in America




Before the Civil War, at a time when the United States boasted only one financially stable concert orchestra and few native composers and solo performers of “classical” music, what taste there was for it had to be supplied by foreign visitors. In 1853 the conductor Jullien brought forty members of his London orchestra to the United States and hired sixty Americans to supplement them. Jullien had come at the invitation of P. T. Barnum, who had talents for promotion and marketing rivaling Jullien’s own. During the year, his orchestra gave 214 concerts. At least some of them were the “monster … Continue reading

Girls and trombone: odder than I first thought?




I had just begun seventh grade the first time I met a girl trombonist, who was also in seventh grade. It didn’t take long to realize that she was better than any other trombonist in the band, and there were lots of them. When we got to ninth grade (freshman year of high school), she played better than any of the seniors. Her older sisters, recent graduates, had been just as outstanding on  horn and tuba. The best trumpet player was a girl, as were all of the hornists, and a euphonium player. It never occurred to me that there … Continue reading

Live vs recorded music




Discussion of the relative merits of live and recorded music probably started as soon as recordings became widely available. As the fidelity of recorded sound improved, the discussion evolved somewhat, but it still continues. One of my professors in college disapproved of recorded music, but frequently attended concerts. He did not even own a record player. I have never met anyone else who prefers live music to the absolute exclusion of listening to recordings, but I know lots of people who agree that there is an immediacy in live performances that recordings cannot duplicate. What’s more, recordings must be almost … Continue reading