• An Orchestra is an Instrument

    Posted on November 8, 2012 by in Blog

    I am a musician. I play the bass. My bass is about 116 years old, made in 1896 by an Englishman named William Acton. It’s not a Strad, but it’s a very good bass. It’s relatively young for a fine string instrument. Many of the violins, violas, cellos and basses played in the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are over 200, some even more than 300 years old. I don’t know the whole history of my bass, but I bought it 10 years ago from someone who played it in the Grand Rapids, MI Symphony, who bought it from the Principal Bassist in North Carolina Symphony, who bought it from the Principal Bassist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. I’m not sure who owned it or where it was played in the three or four human generations that passed between 1896 and where my history picks up. Though I paid for current “possession” of it, I’m really more of a caretaker than an owner. I have the responsibility to maintain its condition for my career, performing duo recitals, recording CDs, and presenting educational performances with my wife, oboist Carrie Vecchione, for audiences ranging from preschoolers through senior citizens. I also use it as I teach at Luther and Gustavus Adolphus Colleges. I’ve played it in many orchestras too, including substitute work with both the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra. Instruments require upkeep. Strings, endpins, fingerboards, and cases wear out, humidity or accidents pop seams or cause cracks. I don’t make a lot of money, but know I somehow have to find a way to pay whatever it takes to keep my instrument in optimal playing condition, regardless my planned annual maintenance budget. Beside needing it for my career, I’m mindful of the responsibility to keep it in good condition as a unique artifact to pass on to future players and audiences.

    An amazing fact about fine string instruments is they improve with age. In all likelihood, if I and my successors properly maintain its condition, my bass will still be making music at a high level 100 or even 200 years from now.

    Of course, instruments are fragile, and can be destroyed through neglect or abuse.

    In a similar way, an Orchestra is an instrument. The Minnesota Orchestra is a little younger than my bass. It was founded in 1903, around the time my grandparents were born. The SPCO was founded in 1959, the year I was born. Like my bass, an orchestra requires maintenance. Top-quality talent and equipment are an ongoing expense. A professional orchestra requires a certain number of salaried players to play the parts in the range of scores they are called on to perform. The same way I have to replace worn equipment on my bass, sometimes even musicians move on, “wear out,” or retire, and need to be replaced. There’s a living tradition to be passed on, so one does not get rid of them when they’re contributing at a high level and imparting their musical “mojo” to colleagues through example and collaboration, any more than any violinist would heedlessly discard their 300 year old Strad in favor of a newer, cheaper, untested fiddle. In the event a musician is replaced, this is generally done by a blind, brutal, grueling, Darwinian audition process that narrows a field of about 100 qualified international applicants through semi-final and final rounds, with two or three finalists often required to perform trial weeks to see how they fit in the ensemble, followed by a probationary period before they are fully accepted as tenured members of the ensemble. The SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra, through generations of care, planning, and constant renewal and revitalization, are both sounding the best they have in the memories of most performers, conductors, and audiences.

    An amazing fact about fine orchestras is they improve with age. In all likelihood, if management and boards properly maintain their ensemble’s condition, our orchestras will still be making music at a high level 100 or even 200 years from now.

    Of course, orchestras are fragile, and can be destroyed through neglect or abuse.

    To sustain an orchestra, audiences and donors have to be educated and inspired to attend and contribute. Musicians have to be inspired to join, perform, and leave their legacy. These constitute the basic responsibilities of orchestral boards and administrations: raising funds, educating audiences, and attracting and retaining talented performers. In drastic situations and changing times, these roles and duties can be adjusted with judicious care, planning, and vision. Players and other resources can be deployed in creative ways to optimize their value and impact, and to generate sustainable revenue. Educational outreach of various forms has to continue to nourish and encourage future audiences, performers, composers, teachers, donors, and the like. It’s a group endeavor that requires participation from all parties, including the audience and surrounding community.

    No single individual CEO, board group, or performing ensemble can claim, or act as if they had personal ownership of “their” orchestra. They have only been entrusted with the care, promotion, preservation, and advancement of priceless art and cultural institutions for what is a relatively short stretch of time in the life of an orchestra. The orchestra “belongs” to everyone it serves, now and in the future, and makes us all the richer for its existence in direct proportion to its excellence.

    Above all, orchestral caretakers on the boards and management in this small slice of history need to learn to love their “instruments,” the orchestras, cherish and promote the music they are designed for and capable of producing, do what it takes to keep them in optimal playing condition for the present, and leave them “fit as a fiddle” for the future. If administrators do their jobs well, both the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO should still be performing great music for my children, grandchildren, and audiences around Minnesota and the world 100, maybe 200 years from now. Who knows? Maybe a worthy new caretaker will be playing my bass as a member of the SPCO or Minnesota Orchestra from time to time in generations to come.

    — Rolf Erdahl

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