Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, March 08, 2004


I heard part of a Vivaldi violin concerto on the radio this morning and thought -- this rocks! The end of the slow movement was just lovely, the ruminative tempo, lyric melody, and slightly melancholy orchestral accompaniment. It was the uptempo last movement that rocked hard. The sawing of repeated chords in the string section buzzing like a rhythm guitar in a metal band, and the skyrocketing solo violin herkin like Eddie Van Halen himself. Vivaldi was a virtuoso violinist who starred in his own concertos, like the later violinist Paganini and the keyboard stars Beethoven and Liszt and Mozart and Bach. Beethoven wouldn’t even write his piano parts out until his publisher bugged him enough. Beethoven liked to keep his own parts open-ended, so he could improvise.

Driving home from work I heard a Haydn-era sounding orchestral piece, played with gusto and drama and verve. In my post of March 1, I mentioned a joke the artist and musician Christian Marclay made about conductors being dictators. Listening to this piece this evening, I thought, you know, it would be hard to pull this off without a conductor. First, to map out the dramatic rising and falling of intensity, and then to keep the ensemble rocking together -- you could do it without a conductor, but it would be hard. If you have experience with group activities governed by consensus, you know what I’m saying. Salman Rushdie in his heartbreakingly beautiful and hilarious book “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” has a weepingly funny account of an army making its battle plan by consensus -- what makes it so funny is that it works, and that the consensus process inspires enthusiasm and loyalty among the soldiers like no other mode of governance can -- just like consensus is supposed to do and so often doesn’t.

It turned out I was wrong on both counts. The piece was by Britten, a 20th century English composer. The piece was his “Simple Symphony,” so maybe that explains its 18th-century-sounding harmonic passages.

And -- the group was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which famously has no conductor. You can read about them here. http://www.orpheusnyc.com/about/process.htm

“Conceived by cellist Julian Fifer and a group of fellow chamber musicians, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra burst onto the classical stage in 1972. The goal was to infuse orchestral repertoire with chamber music principles. The result remains revolutionary: an orchestra with no conductor.

“What is now known as The Orpheus Process® is the very zenith of democratic artistic collaboration. In the absence of a conductor, the individual musicians of Orpheus must rely on one another for repertoire and programming choices, interpretive decisions and ultimately the responsibility of successful performing and recording.”

Rock on!

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