Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Deceptive Appearances?

Chloe Veltman threw down an interesting gauntlet in her blog post today, suggesting that she would want to explore it further in another post. I figured it would not be a bad idea to pick up that gauntlet over here and see whether it provides grounds for an extended conversation. This is what she wrote:

Is the San Francisco Symphony a happy orchestra? The players generally look like they're dialing it in. It doesn't matter if they're playing the music of John Adams, Bernard Herrmann or Gustav Mahler; they often have sour expressions on their faces. I wonder what's going on?

Ever since the San Francisco Symphony decided to sponsor a "bloggers' night" almost exactly three years ago, I have been using this platform to write about my listening experiences in Davies Symphony Hall; and I have subsequently transferred my focus of attention to my Examiner.com writing (where I see that I have now run up 79 "examinations"). I have definitely felt as if different moods prevailed during different performances that I experienced. However, I have not experienced very many negative moods; and I have witnessed quite a few performances at which spirits at least appeared to be high. For the record, however, I do not think I have ever attended a performance at which I felt that the players were "dialing in" their work.

I would therefore like to suggest that it is easy to confuse an intense focus of attention for the sort of "sour expression" that Veltman claims to have observed. In her BASOTI master class Patricia Racette delivered a fascinating trope on how much multitasking takes place when one is performing opera. A member of a symphony orchestra may have to worry about fewer concurrent issues; but multitasking is still part of the job description, so to speak. The fact is that different people exhibit that focus in different ways, and soloists tend to be the only ones who have to worry about masking it. I would therefore suggest that what is "going on" is nothing more than a surface appearance of a job being taken seriously in the interest of being done well. This, of course, is nothing more than my own interpretation of a "surface structure;" and, for all I know, Veltman may be homing in on an aspect of "deep structure" than has eluded me. However, for the most part, the visual experience of watching the San Francisco Symphony at work has enhanced my listening capabilities; and I take that as a very positive sign!

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