I recently collaborated with my colleagues at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra on a side-by-side experience that brought gifted amateur musicians together with the full-time members of the CSO. The vision was to invite townsfolk who had significant musical experience, most likely from another era, to dust off their chops and enjoy an evening of music making with the professionals of the Columbus Symphony. They paid for the privilege, of course, but the plan for the first installment was simply to break even with income matching the expenses of the hall rental and associated support staff. The conductor happily donated his time to this worthwhile cause.
Like any first rehearsal with an unfamiliar orchestra, I approached this like a blind date. I had no idea what level of proficiency I would find. My colleagues at the CSO are used to this sort of activity, in that they regularly staff a side-by-side mentoring event with our Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra, but working with adults was uncharted territory for all of us. The participants from the community had detailed their experience in applying for the opportunity, so we had some idea of level of expertise, but we had no idea if they had kept their skills honed, or were truly dusting off the instrument for the first time in decades. They were supplied with music in advance of the event (Beethoven Symphony No. 5 (mvt. IV); Dvorak Symphony No. 8 (Mvt. IV); Sibelius Finlandia; Brahms Hungarian Dances 5 and 6), and we held our breath. I intended to work on details and then “perform” each work with a reading.
I was delighted to re-connect with several former Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra members at the event, and met many school music teachers as well as long-time CSO supporters. The level of this ensemble was very high, but I quickly learned that “rehearsing” didn’t necessarily produce significant results. Matters of ensemble and balance got a little better, but intonation and quality of overall sound were not appreciably affected. So the major lesson I learned was that we should focus on reading rather than rehearsing. Perhaps, if a subsequent performance were planned, more indepth rehearsal would be beneficial. But we all had fun, and made some splendid music together.
We produced a short video for PR purposes, and the piece went viral! Norman Lebrecht detailed the event on his blog, Slipped Disc, and I have had reports of it making news outlets as far away as Mexico. One comment, however, gave me cause to ponder. Someone chastised the use of the word amateur in describing the consumers of this opportunity. We associate somewhat negative connotations to the word, as an amateur pursues a certain discipline without compensation, implying that the pursuit is casual rather than focused and disciplined. But the word traces its derivation to the Latin word for love, implying a devotion more unquenchable than simply making a living. The noted conductor Robert Shaw once said (and I paraphrase) that music, like athletics, loses something of its sincerity when it is entrusted solely to the professionals. He would know, as his Atlanta Symphony Chorus, amateurs by the accepted definition, was one of the finest ensembles anywhere. I interact with amateurs on a regular basis in my music making, and they remind me of that sincere, profoundly honest, unpretentious aspect of music, and artistic success with amateurs, reaching that achievement far greater than the sum of their individual talents, is what drives my artistic soul!
By the way, we have received some amazing coverage of this event. Here are two examples: