An actual organic orchestra….

Sticking with the idea of “organic” music, here is a link to the website of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra in London. I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know their playing in concert and they are definitely on to something. Their tale is both inspiring and cautionary, as they are still fighting valiantly to find an economic model that will allow them to actually do the concerts and make the recordings that they should be doing and making.

I wrote a little testimonial about the orchestra for their website at the request of their director, John Boyden, who is, among other accomplishments, a former director of the London Symphony.

Here is one of the more innovative, and certainly one of the most exciting orchestras around- they are more than capable of playing at a truly world class level (Carlos Kleiber was considering a concert with them before his death), and yet they’re currently doing very little concert work. We talk about the need for innovation and fresh perspective, but we’re not very good at making room for it in our arts economies.

There’s plenty on their website about their philosophy- playing on old instruments is part of their approach, but only a part. Do check it out.

Below is the text of the testimonial I wrote for them about a year and a half ago:

The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra – Real Innovation

A conductor’s perspective

Almost since the first permanent, professional orchestras came on the scene, there have been periods in which their viability and relevance have been questioned. Often, these periods of doubt have paralleled cycles of economic downturn or social disruption, but in the last ten years despairing of the future of art music has become a cottage industry for many and a lucrative career specialization for some writers. In these times is there any hope that Cassandra will stop wailing and let us get on with our work?

In a world obsessed with fads and youth, and a mass media utterly disinterested in artistic merit, truth or beauty, the symphony orchestra might seem the ultimate anachronism. However, there are more orchestras, more students studying music at a professional level, more people attending concerts and more recordings of symphonic music available worldwide than at any time in history. The last decade has seen the construction of new halls for the orchestras of Philadelphia, Birmingham, Manchester, Seattle, Los Angeles, Newcastle, Dallas and major restorations of halls in London, Chicago and now New York. The internet and new advances in digital recording mean that we are entering an era in which orchestras can make and distribute their own recordings without the corporate interference of international conglomerates. Things are not, then, all bad.

Still, there are serious concerns about the health of the field, even among those who are secure in their belief of the continued viability and relevance of the orchestra. Orchestras and opera companies are blessed with an incredibly rich repertoire stretching back over 250 years, but in constantly revisiting the classics, there is a risk of reaching a point of artistic stagnation. Pierre Boulez once wrote of Indian classical music that it had achieved formal and aesthetic perfection, and, in doing so, had become a dead art form. Could such a fate await western classical music? Critics are often keen (and right) to point out the need for a bigger place for contemporary music in concert programmes, but the core repertoire is too big and too important to push to the side. Just as we must continue to re-learn and re-interpret Shakespeare each generation, so we must re-learn and re-interpret Beethoven and Brahms. Surely Mozart and Ligeti are no more at odds than Checkov and Mamet or Vermeer and Warhol. Art has no expiry date nor has the creation of great new art stopped.

There has been much written in recent years about the need for orchestras to re-invent themselves, but the vast majority of what has been said really only refers to marketing, not music making. We’ve all heard the platitudes about “reaching out to the community” “serving and engaging a more diverse audience” “going beyond the old-fashioned image of the orchestra” “adopting a more informal concert style” and others. I’ve often used them myself. These catch phrases seem to go down well with politicians and administrators, but they tell us nothing about how the art form can move forward, or about how concerts themselves might sound better or be more interesting and essential.

Yet it is this very lexicon of orchestra-speak that seems to be the operational blueprint for a distressingly large number of orchestras. Throughout the western world, orchestras have become so obsessed with relevance, outreach, engagement, partnership, diversity and the “all important” youth market that many have put their artistic identities to one side. Orchestras once known for the beauty of their string sound, their conductor’s matchless interpretations of Strauss or their virtuoso first oboist are now most known for their “Exciting New Blue-Jean Thursdays!” concert series or their new education project where local children get to chant slogans in time with a new work by an out of work film composer, or even their cutting edge website. All of this is probably worthwhile, but certainly ought to be considered a secondary part of an orchestra’s mission.

In fact, through some perverse combination of the influence of recordings, a tendency of industry insiders to look to a tiny handful of influential teachers for new players and conductors, or the corrupting influence of a society permeated with chain restaurants and ready-made meals, many major orchestras, keenly aware that they have the most to lose these days, have never sounded so indistinguishable from one another. Leading orchestras often insist on using the same parts and bowings they’ve been using for decades, playing works with the same outlook and approach year after year, conductor after conductor, generation after generation. Identical and unchanging, reactionary and risk-averse, is this what we want orchestras to be in the coming century?

It’s not what many musicians want. Most players in major orchestras want their own voice, want to take chances, want to develop a more distinctive way of playing as an ensemble. Older generations of orchestra musicians may have seen an orchestra job as a fall back career when their solo aspirations didn’t pan out, but the younger generation of players have grown up knowing that a position in a professional orchestra is one of the most prestigious and coveted positions in the world. Competition for a full time chair as a solo trumpet or principal clarinet is fiercer than even for the elite positions in sport, media and movies. They’ve all made a huge investment in developing themselves not just as violinists or oboists, but as orchestral musicians, and they are passionate and knowledgeable about the repertoire. They want to take chances, and they want to be bold, but the culture of avoiding error and controversy which is so strongly entrenched in the field that some orchestras aren’t ready to let them experiment and take risks, or won’t encourage them to try new approaches.

Fortunately, some organizations are ready to buck the trend, and to put their energies and emphasis into being artistically daring, innovative and distinctive. Such a group is the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

The reader of this article may know a little of the NQHO’s philosophy, such as their use of instruments and performing practices from the early 20th century, but as a conductor and music lover, I can’t help but see them as a courageously innovative and daring group.

The early music movement has brought us many new groups, some wonderful some not, but so much of their work seems founded on a misplaced sense of orthodoxy, of a new need to be definitive or correct. Surely we can be grateful for the interesting and sometimes glorious recordings and performances, but do we really want to simply replace orchestras that vibrate every note with ones who never vibrate at all? Does slavishly following metronome marks alone constitute a real approach to the music of Beethoven? A new catch phrase (“we’re not historically authentic, we’re historically informed” is my favourite) or a switch from steel to gut strings does not make a new aesthetic philosophy by itself.

Orthodoxy and political correctness are not the point of the NQHO. What could be less orthodox than French bassoons in Brahms? Yet, here is an orchestra with an immediately and uniquely identifiable sound world all its own. For the world weary conductor who hears hundreds of performances and recordings around the world every year, what could be more refreshing than to hear new colours, new articulations, new balances and new ways of phrasing? The strings of the NQHO orchestra are making sounds that you won’t hear anywhere else in the world, and it is a beautiful collection of sounds, too. Where else can you hear these distinctive woodwind colours, or the true power (as opposed to ear-splitting volume) of a well balanced, virtuosic brass section playing on narrow-bore instruments.

Even more importantly, this is a group that encourages risk taking, innovation, individuality and collaboration. It’s a group where a player can go for a dangerously soft entrance or ephemeral colour in concert, even if it means risking a mistake. It is an orchestra where section players take initiative, where there can be a genuine exchange of ideas and energy between conductor and players during the concert.

Is this the way forward? Well, by now you should know that I hope that we can avoid looking for “the way forward,” which only leaves us looking for the latest bandwagon to jump on. The NQHO is something better, an orchestra that actually sounds like itself, plays like itself and responds like itself. It is artistically creative and forward looking, fearless, and works at a tremendously high standard, the very qualities that we need on the concert platform today. Yes they are innovative, but more importantly, they are distinctive. I call your attention to the NQHO because it is just the sort of group that should be flourishing as an inspiration to administrators, conductors and musicians world wide to look for their own voices, develop their own artistic visions and create their unique musical identities. I call it to your attention because it is a joy to hear them play. It is most certainly a way forward.

Kenneth Woods

The author is Music Director of the Oregon East Symphony and Chorale, and a regular guest conductor of orchestras throughout North America, Europe and the UK

BTW- The NQHO’s record label was originally called “Organic Classics”

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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5 comments on “An actual organic orchestra….”

  1. robert berger

    Interesting post,but what you say about orchestras today sounding alike is not true.It’s impossible for orchestras to sound alike,as they consist of
    different musicians playing different makes of instruments in concert halls
    with different acoustics.I could never mistake the Czech Philharmonic,the
    Berlin Phil,the Concertgebouw,or the Vienna Philharmonic for each other.
    The commonly held notion that orchestras today sound alike is in my opinion,
    a psychological illusion that many critics and commontators have because of their idealization of “the golden age” of classsical music,when everything was supposedly better,and which never existed.And the notion that we desper-
    ately need a period instrument orchestra for early 20th century music is

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Robert
    Thanks for commenting. Much appreciated.
    Perhaps I could have made the distinction clearer, but I did not and would not mean to imply that orchestras sound alike, only that, in general, they tend to sound more alike now than, say, 30 or 50 years ago. I would contend that the very orchestras you’ve listed above are probably the most compelling examples of modern orchestras that do have truly distinctive sounds and identities, but even they might be closer to each other now than in the 50s and 60s.
    I don’t think we need a “period” instrument orchestra- for me that is not the main appeal of the NQHO. My interest is primarilly in how great they sound, and how in balance they are able to play. They don’t have to stand on their heads to get a natural balance between strings and brass. You may want to read another perspective from Julian Baker- who has been principal of the Halle, the BBC Symphony and the Orchestra of Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. His thoughts are here-
    In America we have a lot of medium sized orchestra that are in strong positions to become exceptionally dynamic institutions as the pool of first rate players becomes ever deeper. I worry that the temptation these days is to gravitate towards a generalized artistic approach- to try to sound like what everyone’s idea of a great orchestra is, instead of aspiring to a completely new and distinctive artistic profile.
    Thanks for reading

  3. Erin

    Thanks for bringing this orchestra to my attention. I’ve lived in London for a couple of years and getting on top of all the groups and concerts is a challenge. I’ll keep my eye on them and hopefully get to hear them soon.

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