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Why orchestras matter

Mr Robertson always enjoyed writing articles for the Newsletter, offering food for thought and encouraging greater understanding of Music throughout our community. ‘Mr Robertson’s Recommended Listening’ was a weekly joy for him to put together, and was indeed something that he kept up with when he was able whilst on Sick Leave. I knew that his phone ‘Notes’ contained numerous collections of thoughts and ideas on a range of subjects, and sure enough among these were a number of musings and half-written pieces intended for the Newsletter. The following is an article that Mr Robertson had drafted whilst in hospital at the start of this academic year. Whilst he would argue that it is not yet polished, it is finished enough that it seemed a shame not to share with his intended audience.

Mrs Robertson

Why orchestras matter

I often wonder what musical instruments of the future will look like, how they will sound, what resemblance will they bear to the instruments we know today. What will an orchestra look and sound like?

We may not be able to guess at what technological advances will allow us to do in the realm of instrument design and manufacture, but perhaps we can better predict the role the orchestra might take in the future, by using the path it has taken historically to model what the future might look like. Look to the past to understand the role it has played, and continues to play in society.

Since it first evolved from small chamber ensembles, the orchestra has, like all great artistic endeavours, offered a reflection of society.

The orchestra has never been a static entity. As soon as it comes close to settling on a certain shape or format, a new style of composition comes along to shake things up again.

Whatever shape the orchestra takes, and however it performs for future audiences, it will continue to be a reflection of society itself, like all art. Mirroring the ever transient nature of musical style, fashion, dance (think of a modern day tik-tok dance compared to the Charleston), technology and ideology.

Music evolves with our culture, then becomes our culture in a never ending paradox, and as it changes the orchestra adapts, grows, shrinks, adds a cowbell, adds saxophones, takes them away and adds off-stage trumpets and so on and so on. The orchestra is a shape shifter. We might not know what it will sound like, but it will continue to morph and evolve in a perfect demonstration of Darwinian evolution for as long as music is written for it.

It will evolve, might look very different one day but will get there organically - perhaps including instruments yet to be invented. If the composers write it, the orchestra will exist. Even if modern instruments become historic, like we have historically accurate groups now who play natural instruments etc.

Orchestra gets bad press - old fashioned or elitist. It’s easy to be cynical of a traditional institution such as an orchestra. Attending an orchestral performance could be an intimidating spectacle. There are unspoken protocols that must be adhered to unless one is to be tutted at by the rest of the audience - clapping in the right place, and definitely not clapping in other places (we’ve all done it), a mysterious yet apparently special person stands at the front of the orchestra casting endless spells with a thin white wand (what’s all that about anyway?), and the attire worn by the players can seem elitist or outdated (you won’t see tail coats at our concerts).

These factors, plus others I’m sure, can be off-putting or at the very least make the uninitiated wary of the very concept of ‘the orchestra’.

Some cling to classical symphonies and bow ties but people always cling to the old ways, let them - not harmful, it’s no different to going to a museum to look at old art, people want to hear old music - but the orchestra is the gallery, not the art. Despite that, things will evolve at the other end.

Until the likes of Beethoven and Brahms are banned altogether in an unimaginable dystopian future we hope never comes, there will be orchestras, just as there will be libraries, art galleries and museums - the places we go to connect with ideas, creativity, and the past.

Will the great composers and their works become more popular as time goes on, or less so? On the surface at least, it would appear that great art of any genre only becomes more widely acclaimed, as more people become aware of it, understand it better, and develop an appreciation for it. Look at the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, or the musical oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach, both died in relative obscurity only to be discovered by the world posthumously. Maybe this is the true test of what makes a piece of art great - the test of time. Maybe it is too soon to tell which pieces of orchestral music will ultimately be considered great. Western classical music has only been around for a few hundred years, and what you would deem as orchestral music, even less time. Perhaps we need another thousand years to pass before we know which music is here to stay, and what kind of orchestra we will need to perform it.

To delve further I can recommend the series ‘Reinventing the Orchestra with Charles Hazelwood’.