Time was when every great orchestra of the world had a distinctive and recognisable sound. Now they are accused of all sounding the same: professional but somewhat characterless. In this age of globalisation should we expect anything different? And does resistance to it sound like protectionism?
Sir Thomas Beecham, the great English conductor and raconteur, once observed that ‘the British may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.’ Extraordinary, then, that London is home to a clutch of world-class symphony orchestras, two of which Beecham founded: The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
I was in my teens when I first fell in love with the sound of the orchestra. The London Symphony Orchestra was then, as now, regarded as the best of the bunch but I’m not sure I could identify any stylistic difference in their sounds.
Then came the occasion when Carlo Maria Giulini (pictured) brought the Philadelphia Orchestra to London’s Royal Festival Hall. I was blown away by the string section’s famously lush ‘Philadelphia sound’, so different from British orchestras. And how different again from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s glossy sound when they performed at the Proms under Georg Solti a few years later. In concert and on disc, I soon began to recognise certain national characteristics – the reediness of French woodwind sections, the strident vibrato-laden sound of Russian brass.
But even back then those differences had long been waning and today the world is a much smaller place.
A century ago only the rich and the famous undertook the five day transatlantic crossing from Europe to America. When Austrian conductor and composer Gustav Mahler made his New York debut in 1908 he stayed six months before returning home to Vienna. Nowadays, the skies are filled with countless air-borne musicians cross-fertilising the world’s orchestras with an apparent homogeneity of sound.
The rise of the music recording industry has also had an impact. ’Perfect’ recordings by a select group of international artists were sleek, streamlined and increasingly emulated by the rest. Herbert von Karajan, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years, was particularly busy in this regard and is hated by many as a result.
The truth is we like characterless. When it comes to people, I always thought that it was the small imperfections that I liked – the small ones, not the big ones so much – but surveys have shown that we tend to find average looking faces most attractive. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that we prefer an average orchestral sound.
The debate around the loss of orchestral identity parallels that going on not just in the arts generally but in society as a whole. Concerns about protecting regional identity have been much in the news recently with the election of right-wing nationalists and the demand for strengthened borders. It is natural to want to protect our traditions and our way of life.
Yet, if post-Brexit Britain is showing us anything it’s that one cannot ‘have cake and eat it’. No country can expect to keep out foreigners and foreign influences if at the same time it wants to trade freely and be welcomed by others. By the same token, if we export British musicians to Germany we shouldn’t be surprised when the Dresden Staatskapelle, still a very distinctive orchestra, no longer sounds as it did during the Cold War.
No doubt the link between cultural identity and nationalistic protectionism could be easily unpicked. My point is this: preserving things from outside influence doesn’t nurture new life, it merely extends shelf-life. Given the minority appeal that classical music currently has the last thing it needs is a preservation order. The arts have always flourished where there is openness to change. Historically, that is most likely to happen in societies that are free, tolerant and welcoming to outsiders.
So our worry shouldn’t be that an orchestra doesn’t sound like it used to, or that it doesn’t have a national style. Rather we should be worried if it sounds staid and conventional. Better an orchestra that sounds fresh, inspired, cutting-edge.