Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’

The Great American Symphony Orchestra — Book Review

The Great American Symphony Orchestra

by Anthony J. Cirone.  Galesville, MD:  Meredith Music Publications.  2011.


The Great American Symphony Orchestra is an informative, well-written overview of how a symphony orchestra operates.  It is a primer, an outline, a guidebook, not an in depth exploration or analysis.  It is not Ball Four, or The Paper Lion.  I attend San Francisco Symphony performances frequently, and over the years have developed a number of questions about just how does all of this come about and what keeps it going.  Cirone answered many of my questions, especially about the organizational structure of the symphony.  What you see on the stage is only the visible tip or a rather large enterprise.  In his Appendix B he lists the many departments that support and administer the orchestra.  He says the ratio of support staff to orchestra members is one-to-one, but it seems to me like it must be more than that.  There are many people behind the scenes that make a symphony orchestra possible.

Cirone was percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony from 1965 to 2001.  During this long tenure he served under Music Directors Seiji Ozawa, Edo DeWaart, Herbert Blomstedt, and Michael Tilson Thomas and noted guest conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Eugene Ormandy, Kurt Mazur, Rafael Kubelik, and James Levine.  He has vast knowledge of the symphony and its personalities. I wish he would share more of what he knows.  What you get in this book is the public tour.  The Symphony as it would like to have itself presented.

Throughout the book he stresses the dedication demanded of the musicians to reach the high level or performance required of orchestra musicians.  It is an arduous process to create a symphony orchestra musician that begins early in life and continues throughout.  He describes in detail the training that musicians must undergo, the audition process for admission to the Symphony, which is very interesting, the rehearsals in preparation for a concert, the process of moving a symphony orchestra on a tour, the expenses of a symphony orchestra and its sources of funding.  There is a very nice chapter on Arthur Fiedler and his tenure presiding over the San Francisco Pops.  I was very interested in the role of the conductor and how the conductor shapes the character of the orchestra.  I would like to have heard more about the relations between the musicians within the symphony.  These are people who spend a lot of time together and are a rather close knit group that continues over years.  These very intimate relationships which he talks about only in generalities.  He is very discreet about the family business.  One point that he obliquely touches on, but does so repeatedly, is that developing extraordinary musical skill stunts young people in other areas of their development.

Professional musicians practice constantly; in fact, they become slaves to their instruments.  Even as young children, these artists-to-be spent years developing technique and preparing etudes for lessons — time that often replaced social activities. (p. 25)

Students who excel as music majors at the undergraduate level and want to pursue graduate-level studies in this field love to perform and have no other strong interest. (p. 39)

Although members of a family have hobbies, this is not always the case with symphony artists, many of whom have no interests outside of music. . . To  excel in any one area takes a great amount of energy and when family obligations are added into the mix, little time is left for anything else in a busy musician’s schedule. (p. 18)

This theme of the personal and social cost of producing high caliber musicians recurs throughout the book although he does not develop it in detail or illustrate it with specific anecdotes.  But I have the sense that there is some regret or ambivalence about his life as an orchestra musician when he weighs what he has missed in terms of his personal life against the notable achievements of a symphony musician.

Professional musicians spend an inordinate amount of time practicing in order to maintain technique and learn new music.  Besides juggling a major orchestra schedule, many players perform in chamber music ensembles or hold teaching positions in universities and conservatories; others compose, conduct, and participate in a variety of music-related activities.  These never-ending endeavors leave little time to master the personal life skills so necessary for enduring friendships and close relationships. (p. 197)

This de-emphasis of the personal is also reflected in how the book is written. The book is detailed and engagingly written.  He includes anecdotes from his personal experience that add interest and color to the narrative, but his anecdotes are generally not revealing of himself.  This is not a personal perspective on a life in the symphony.  It is not about his personal point of view on the symphony, it is written almost in a journalistic style that concentrates on the facts and the processes, while at the same time keeping the reporter’s subjectivity in the background.  I think it is in keeping with the mentality of a player in a symphony orchestra.  Symphony musicians are team players par excellence.  Individualism is discouraged.  The symphony musician must suppress his own idiosyncratic interpretations of the music to create a unified whole in the context of the group.  The individual musicians are submerged into this well-integrated totality.  He wrote the book as a member of the symphony, who executed his part flawlessly, carefully observant of the smallest details, but very discreet in his choice of what to report, and otherwise kept his mouth shut.

The other point that impressed me is the conservatism of this music and the players who perform it.  The demands of the profession foster a very conservative, structured lifestyle and personality.  There is great reverence for the printed score.  Punctuality is vital.  Interdependence is understood and taken for granted.  People who are unable to subject themselves to the regimen necessary to achieve the high level of technical proficiency and maintain it over years are weeded out of a symphony orchestra.  They will never even get close to one.  People without the even temperedness and tolerance necessary to be in close quarters with the same 100+ people for much of the time including traveling for months on end together cannot be in a symphony orchestra.

This book helped me understand why I have never been able to warm up to symphony music.  Although I often attend symphonic concerts, it is not to hear the Symphony.  I am far more interested in the soloists, usually pianists or violinists.  I like seeing that single figure standing out apart from the mass with his sound soaring out above the rest with spectacular strength and power, dominating the attention of the listeners.  In recent years my tastes have broadened somewhat, having become more interested in the different instruments and intrigued by the myriad ways a symphony orchestra can be used to create communicative sound, but I’ve never been much of a team player, unless I am the captain.  When I studied piano, I studied the solo repertoire, and I never liked to accompany people.  It is perhaps a limitation in my character, but it is reflected in the kind of music I like.  The Symphony interests me, but I do not feel passionate about it.

This book gave me a greater understanding of the organizational structure of a symphony orchestra, some of its inner workings, and especially the wholehearted dedication demanded of its players and the high cost it exacts on their personal lives.  I would like to see something that would fill out this picture more in terms of a personal perspective, an introspective look at an orchestra and its musicians.  But this book is a good, solid introduction for anyone who attends the Symphony.

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