Violinist Alexandra Gorski argues that an orchestra’s greatest asset is not power or accuracy; rather the ability to adapt seamlessly to every style of music and manner of conductor


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In a world of constant concerts and endless symphonies, orchestras demand a great deal from their members. Superior personal playing and musicianship, knowledge of repertoire, teamwork; as orchestral musicians, we must juggle it all.

When playing in an orchestra, musicians are constantly working on different programmes with different conductors, which in turn lead to different interpretations and styles. One concert might contain music by Wagner, Schnittke and Schoenberg, the next Haydn and Mozart, and the very next might be an opera gala: all place wildly contrasting musical demands on an orchestra. (This is no random example – these were three back-to-back programmes I played in within two weeks!) Each of these concerts calls for a different method of sound production, different approaches to balance and intonation, and even different styles of bowing.

Performing in an environment that every few days requires a radical change in the way you approach your playing can certainly be a challenge, but it is also stimulating and exciting. Even playing the same repertoire repeatedly within a single concert season but under different conductors can be unpredictable. In the past three months I have played Schubert’s Ninth Symphony four times, and none of the performances were the same: each conductor had their own interpretation of the work, and a different style of conducting.

Considering our state of constant change, I’ve observed that one of the most fundamental and important requirements from an orchestra is adaptability. It’s not the first quality that usually comes to mind when thinking about the measure of a good orchestra; reputable symphony or philharmonic orchestras are usually hailed as ‘refined’ or ‘accurate’; seldom ‘adaptable’. In reality, one of our main duties playing together in an orchestra is to be responsive and malleable to the wishes of every conductor and to the needs of every programme. The sound we applied last week in the Wagner concert is no longer appropriate in the Haydn concert – new techniques must be employed on a regular basis.

Orchestras are usually hailed as ‘refined’ or ‘accurate’; seldom as ‘adaptable’

In the case where an orchestra repeats repertoire, adaptability is even more important. An orchestra must be flexible in the hands of each conductor, accepting of all the musical decisions that come with their interpretation. This is the part that can be difficult: not every orchestra is so malleable, especially when there is disagreement about interpretation. Sometimes an orchestra can become stuck in its ways, accustomed to a certain mode of playing after years of repetition and experience. I’ve seen it first-hand: members of a group refuting a conductor’s musical choices, whether it be in the tempo, phrasing, or even the decision to observe a repeat. Of course, there cannot always be unanimous agreement within the orchestra for every performance, and it is rarely the case. We may even vehemently dislike and disagree with the interpretation offered to us, but ultimately our job is to execute the conductor’s vision, regardless of our personal feelings about that vision.

An orchestra’s willingness and ability to adapt to every musical situation is perhaps its most practical skill. Although it can be challenging, it’s also part of the fun: there’s still room for the unexpected, even when we think we’ve heard it all. With every programming of a familiar symphony or concerto, orchestras can only hope that the conductor might offer something unique in their interpretation.

If we are lucky, we ourselves might even experience something new, something different: we just have to be ready to adapt.

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