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Musical clerks

By David Amos 

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–The story is told of an orchestra concert, place and time of no importance, where the principal violin (the concertmaster) performed the entire program with a pained grimaced expression on his face. At the end of the program, a concerned concertgoer approached this violinist, who was famous for his wonderful playing, and asked him as to what might be the problem or malady. To this, the violinist answered, “It’s just that I hate music!”

What I did not tell you is that this incident did not happen, and is only a joke that makes its rounds with musicians. But it does bring us to the subject of what is sometimes referred to in the professional world as “musical clerks”. It is quite common; every orchestra has them. They are the trained, professional musicians who have little or no passion for the music they play. It is simply a paid job, and the moment the rehearsal and/or concert are over, it is time for something else that’s really enjoyable.

Many of these musical clerks started being this way from day one. Others honed their craft of making music for nothing more than a paycheck through years of practice and negative reinforcement.

Yet, these dispassionate musicians are everywhere. They will play only for money, not pleasure. They will volunteer for nothing. They are amongst us in San Diego, and I have seen them to a greater or lesser degree with orchestras all over the world, from the magnificent London orchestras, to the state supported orchestras in Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America. I must report, that overall, musicians in the Israeli orchestras showed much more enthusiasm for their art than I saw in other places, as individuals, and as a group.

Here are a few examples from my personal experiences.

In the British orchestras, while strictness to the time allotted for rehearsals and recording sessions is legendary, there is a prevailing sense of good spirits, energy, and the desire to give the conductor and production staff the best possible music they can provide. The ambience of cooperation is exemplary. But, I distinctly remember a moment during a recording session in London, when the time was drawing to an end, and I asked the leader (concertmaster) how much time we have remaining to record. His answer, “33 seconds!” Rules are rules.

The worst attitude I faced was with the Moravian Philharmonic in Olomouc, Czech Republic. The musicians of that isolated city grew up in the Soviet system of musical training. It was geared to glorify the Soviet philosophy, where the musicians who did not make the grade to become superstars, were relegated to the “booby prize”, to play in orchestras.. The majority of them felt overused, underpaid, unappreciated, and looked at their profession with failure, disappointment and bitterness. Their job was no more inspirational than that of a factory assembly line worker, where the most pleasant thought is lunchtime, and the magic moment where they “punched out” and went home to be with family, watch television, and forget about the workday. Add to this the many years of indoctrinations about the evils of Western culture and capitalism, I felt that as a guest conductor, as well as the American soloists who came with us, were treated with suspicion and open unfriendliness. This took place after the liberation of Eastern Europe and the departure of the Communists, but I am certainly not anxious to go there again. And this was exactly what I told to that orchestra’s general manager.

In curious contrast, the recording I conducted in Moscow in 1994 was peaches and cream. Complete cooperation from everyone concerned and a genuine interest in the musicians make the best recording possible. And the results were indeed excellent. Among other compositions, we were recording a world premiere work by Morton Gould called Harvest, and the Russian musicians wanted to fully understand the meaning of the English word “Harvest” in order to focus completely on the composer’s and conductor’s intentions.

Yet, in San Diego, there is the infamous story of over 30 years ago (of which I had no involvement at all), where the unionized musicians during a recording session refused the emotional pleas from the composer and producers for a mere half a minute longer, to clean up and complete a recording. No overtime money was available, even for the requested half-minute, and the recording session stopped. To my ways of doing things, inexcusable. These were not artists, but the ultimate clerks.

But, as I mentioned, in every orchestra (with two exceptions), I found a small pocket of enterprising musicians full of energy, and bursting with musical ideas to further their careers beyond the salary they perceived. They looked to extend their opportunities, to play abroad, to record, and to volunteer to play and educate without pay in their own community. They relished in making new contacts. And these are the musicians whom I truly admired. In Israel alone, the contacts and continuing friendships I established there have led to many worthwhile projects.

And this, inevitably, brings me to what community musicians do. Yes, there is no doubt that the refinement, polish, and sophistication of seasoned professionals  far exceed the skills of part-time amateurs, but the energy irradiated, the sincerity of the musical message, albeit somewhat technically flawed, make for some magic moments of intimacy and communication which professionals rarely reach.

Having lived in both worlds, I feel confident to make these statements. Just look up what George Bernard Shaw wrote on this subject.

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Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.

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