Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

This won't be about the English pop group of the same name, but about what sometimes goes on behind the scenes in orchestras. An orchestra, which might comprise anything from twenty or so musicians up to well over one hundred, is both the most sophisticated and capable musical instrument ever devised and a complex problem in interpersonal relations.

These thoughts are prompted by a story I just read illustrating just how fraught things can get in an orchestra. Here is the story of Pierre Roy, erstwhile oboist for the Buffalo Philharmonic:
A lawsuit filed by an acclaimed oboist who lost his job with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra struck a sour note with a federal court judge.
U.S. District Judge Michael A. Telesca refused to overturn an arbitrator’s decision that upheld the July 2012 firing of Pierre Roy, who had been the orchestra’s principal oboist for more than 15 years.
The orchestra fired Roy after fellow musicians complained he engaged in disruptive behavior toward some of his colleagues, according to court papers.
Apparently, Mr. Roy was not the most congenial member of the orchestra:
Roy’s confrontational behavior during rehearsals rattled some of his fellow musicians, to the point that symphony officials placed a plexiglass shield between one musician and Roy, according to Rabin’s arbitration decision.
“In February 2012, there were several incidents of intimidating behavior directed towards Christine Davis, the principal flutist. One incident involved Mr. Roy swinging his oboe into her space, causing her to feel threatened,” Rabin wrote. “Following this incident, a plexiglass shield was placed between Ms. Davis and Mr. Roy. During a subsequent service, Mr. Roy knocked on the shield and said ‘bulletproof,’ rattling Ms. Davis and others.”
Why would he be picking on the poor flute player, one asks? An orchestral seating chart should make this clear:

As you can see, the principal oboe and the principal flute are sitting side by side, so a confrontation, while not inevitable, could have been likely, given Mr. Roy's personal issues.

I recall a flute professor colleague of mine who used to resolve all sorts of problems with students by simply saying "that sounds like a personal problem" meaning, don't waste our time with it. The world of professional classical musicians is, despite how they are depicted in popular dramas, a highly disciplined one where your little quirks and eccentricities are not welcome. This is a theme stressed throughout musician's training. But, given the demands of a career as an orchestral musician, sometimes these things happen, though Mr. Roy seems to be quite an outlier. I don't think I have ever heard of another instance where a plexiglass shield was necessary to protect the principal flutist from the principal oboist!

I do recall a situation where an orchestra was rather plagued with the aftermath of romantic engagements. At one point there were considerable tensions because the principal cello and the assistant principal cello, stand partners, were going through a divorce. At around the same time the principal trumpet and the principal French horn who had been living together, had a nasty breakup and as a result  the horns and the trumpets no longer would tune to one another.

And of course, lots of orchestras nurture a deep and abiding hatred for the conductor, who gets paid so much more to wave his arms around and swan off to guest conduct many times a year.

But you should really offset all this gossip and anecdote with the greater truth that orchestras, yes, even including their conductors, spend most of their time in harmonious and beautifully coordinated performance of music. It is this unity of spirit that is the more important thing. The kind of incident that I have been recounting is easily told, but the ongoing love of playing together cannot be put into words very readily.

Let's listen to some of that wonderful orchestral playing to end. This is Trevor Pinnock conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the Unfinished Symphony of Schubert. Towards the beginning you can see just how close the principal oboe and principal flute are to one another.

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