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Orchestras At Very Different Ends of the Spectrum

November 5, 2007

Yesterday evening's concert at Davies Symphony Hall was not the one to miss. I was very distraught about having to give up my tickets to hear Venzuela's spectacular Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra perform Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and Mahler's Fifth Symphony under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel owing to a bad attack of stomach flu which made it impossible to stay more than 10 feet away from a bathroom for more than 20 minutes at a time.

Reading Mark Swed's euphoric LA Times piece about the orchestra's U.S. tour-opening concert in Los Angeles only made me feel sicker. Ah well. Hopefully I'll catch Dudamel and his brilliant young band when they come through next time around.

Speaking of orchestras, Scotland's Really Terrible Orchestra has been getting quite a bit of exposure lately. The Edinburgh-based orchestra was founded by bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith to provide a creative outlet for beginner or otherwise incompetent musicians. The orchestra is becoming pretty (in)famous. Each year, its Edinburgh Fringe concert is sold out well in advance, attracting an audience of more than 500 people. The group has released two CDs, which have received airplay by foreign radio stations -- the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and National Public Radio in the United States have aired the orchestra's music. The New York Times devoted a quarter of a page to an article about the Really Terrible Orchestra. A few days after the appearance of the article the orchestra's chairman, Peter Stevenson, received an approach from the same New York impresario who had first taken the Beatles to the US.

An article last week in The Daily Telegraph asked a sensible question of McCall Smith: why would people be interested in hearing a terrible orchestra perform? Smith doesn't actually answer the question in the article. Seems to me that the answer is obvious.
1) The Really Terrible Orchestra is a novelty. The media loves novelty.
2) Classical music is regarded as a rarefied art-form by many people. The playing of it is even more rarefied, given how few people play musical instruments to any proficient level. As such, professional orchestral playing is assumed to be the summit of unattainable perfection. So when a group plays this badly, it knocks classical music off its pedestal and makes it seem more human and attainable.
3) A group that trumpets its awfulness to the point of putting it in its title doesn't take itself too seriously. People like a good laugh. The Really Terrible Orchestra allows for this release in a classical music environment which is traditionally regarded as being very serious.

It would be fun to write a comparison of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and The Really Terrible Orchestra. I wonder if there would be any points of intersection?

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