ABC’s Limelight magazine is running a story in its upcoming April edition, promoted under the heading “Who is Australia’s best orchestra?”
A panel of 15 expert critics and professional musicians from around the country – many of whom wished to remain anonymous – was sent ABC recordings of live concerts by the six orchestras from throughout 2012. The judges were left blind as to which orchestra was which (each one received a label from A to F) in order to obviate any prejudice or hometown loyalty. All attempts were made to match repertoire between the orchestras, and to include a variety of styles, conductors and soloists in order to capture the range of each ensemble’s expressive power. Each judge was asked to review all the works performed by each orchestra and to provide an overall ranking of the orchestras from one to six.
The teaser then goes on to say that the SSO comes in first, the ASO second then the QSO. The MSO is (surprisingly) fourth then the WASO and, by “trailing by a large gap,” the TSO.
This whole exercise strikes me as pretty silly. As silly as drawing any serious conclusions from a review of a DVD of last year’s Handa Opera production of La Traviata. I mean, in an event where the atmosphere and the place are a crucial aspect of the experience, what would you expect of a DVD recording?
The main reason why I think it silly is because, unless you are contemplating moving cities for the sake of the orchestra, or, possibly, going for a job in one, the question is pretty irrelevant. In Australia you pretty well only have one [ex-]ABC orchestra to go to according to the city you are living in and, let’s face it, if you are wanting to buy a recording of “the best orchestra” you are not often likely to be choosing one of the [ex-]ABC orchestras.
Even if you lived in London with a choice of resident and regularly visiting orchestras, the question of “the best orchestra” is probably a pretty stupid one. Associated artists and repertoire would all play a part.
And how valid a guide, even with all these qualifications, are the recordings?
The first person to comment on Limelight’s puff piece, “arpasquill,” asked:
“Was patching work taken into consideration when listening to recordings?”
This drew a response from “RJStove”, who outs himself as one of the “panel of 15 expert critics and professional musicians from around the country.” You can possibly judge that for yourself. Stove has written a faintly Quixotic and decidedly tendentious book on Cesar Franck which tells us almost as much about RJStove as it does about its ostensible subject.
“I can only say that I didn’t take patching work into account. To this day I don’t know which recordings had patches and which didn’t…Except on the few occasions when audience applause was included, we weren’t even sure whether a performance was done at a concert or in a studio. So the question of patches didn’t enter my own consciousness, anyway.”
There is a more indignant response from conductor and broadcaster Graham Abbott, including as follows:
The alleged strengths and weakness of the performances reviewed could as easily be attributed in many cases to the recording, the hall, how tired the orchestra was, and especially the conductor.
Abbott gallantly illustrates this with a comment which (see below) I can report after my trip to the newsagent is dealt out in the article to the MSO under his own direction, namely that it is “heavy handed in Mozart.”
With some justification Abbott complains:
most appalling of all was the press release sent out in anticipation of this tripe. “Australia’s best and worst symphony orchestras named in first ever blind-listening test.”
He accuses the magazine of a cheap stunt to sell copies by denigrating the orchestras in question.
I’d say the “cheap stunt” bit is a fair cop.
Obviously there are many variables. The choice of comparable repertoire probably deprives a smaller orchestra such as the TSO of the chance to show itself off to advantage. But, as I said, what is even the point of the comparison when few really have a meaningful choice between these orchestras?
The low ranking of the MSO seems odd, and is probably a bigger upset than the relegation of the TSO to the bottom of the class. (After all, they are the poorest and smallest of the ex-ABC orchestras.) I don’t like to give the comparison too much credit by responding to it but I wonder if the outcome for the MSO is a result in any way of their prolonged lack of a chief conductor. [Postscript after a detour to the newsagent, see below: nor did it help them to have Brahms' Tragic Overture conducted by Richard Gill counted as representative of their work.] The quality of recordings made in 2012 likely to have been adversely affected by their exile from the Hamer Hall for two years prior to its reopening in about August 2012.
Of course I’m curious to see how the Limelight panel have reached their conclusions, but I don’t intend encouraging them by buying the April edition. I shall read the article for free at the newsagent.