14 MARCH 1992, Page 43


Notes from the underground

Peter Phillips

In the hierarchy of professions in music it is a moot point whether being a critic comes lower than playing in a pit orchestra. At any rate, none is as menial as one or other of these two functions, unable to compete with the sublime occupation of the composer or the essential role played by the interpreter. It might be objected that the critic is a composer of a kind — in prose — and the pit orchestra is called upon to interpret music just like any other orchestra; but criticism happens at a high level only rarely, while the pit orchestra is forever pushed into the background by the singers and dancers whom the public have really come to see. Unremarked and unap- preciated, the pit musician festers at the bottom of the professional ladder, drinking too much coffee and getting fat.

Last week at the New York City Ballet, nearing the end of its winter season, the apathy emanating from beneath the stage came in sad contrast to the dancing taking place on it, some of the most accomplished of its kind in the world. It was no surprise that the playing of the NYCB orchestra was dreadfully bad: how could it be other- wise when so little attention is routinely paid to its members? The only moment of contact with them came at the beginning of the evening, when the conductor's hands appeared over the top of his parapet, even- tually followed by his head, grimacing as though he were in fact appearing thus by doing a pull-up. At the end of the perfor- mance he was allowed to appear on the stage, his dinner jacket ridiculous by the side of the dancers' costumes, his gait impossibly awkward. By then the orchestra had long since departed the scene, and the conductor was careful not to make the mis- take of deflecting the applause from him- self down to the empty pit. From my seat in the circle I could see through the musi- cians' stage door into the airless box which was their reception room. I could see with what lethargy the knitting came out and the plastic cups were primed with coffee. I could imagine the dreariness of the conver- sations which were resumed; yet this type of relaxation seemed to them to be prefer- able to taking a lively interest in the music.

Apart from being permanently out of the limelight, the orchestra's disenchantment must be aggravated by knowing that they have no artistic freedom. In opera this is a slightly different matter, since operatic orchestral parts are limited to an accompa- nying role by design, and the players can enjoy themselves briefly in the overture. But in ballet the hopelessness of the task is underlined by often having to play master- pieces which were originally conceived for orchestra alone, now tied to the whims of the dancers. In practice this resulted in a performance without any sudden or unex- pected changes of tempi, in case these should trip up the ballerinas. In other words, the performance was obliged to be wooden.

No doubt orchestras like that of the NYCB should give concert series of their own to keep their morale up. This, at any rate, is the lesson to be learnt from the suc- cess of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Not only is it in some people's opinion the best orchestra in the world, it is also, uniquely amongst those which con- tend for that title, a pit orchestra at the Vienna State Opera. Their achievement seems to me to be almost miraculous, given the circumstances, but they have the great strength of an unbending sense of tradition which demands that they never let their standards drop. This has preserved their idiosyncratic sound though all conditions, whether in concert hall or opera house.

The Vienna Philharmonic have recently been playing in New York, where their per- formances have been compared favourably with those of the New York Philharmonic; which is also celebrating its 150th birthday this year. A rather delicious controversy has blown up in the press about whether the reliable but nondescript sound of the New York Philharmonic, as with so many other contemporary American orchestras, comes from employing women, which the Vienna Philharmonic still does not do. This, to some American concert-goers, is the unacceptable face of the tradition they admire so much in the Viennese, but they argue, typically, that they probably could have it both ways if only they could hit on the right formula. Militant feminists boy- cotted the Vienna Philharmonic's concerts. What I wanted to know was how many of the members of the NYCB orchestra went to hear them.