I think I commented in an earlier post that my gig Saturday before last was stiffening an amateur orchestra’s string section. Despite which I was being paid, at certainly within professional range of rates, to be there, and had been hired by advertisement for a pro.
There are a few angles from which this is noteworthy. Firstly, most amateur orchestras are desperately cash-strapped. Their concerts lose money by the time venue hire, music hire (usually), bringing in a concerto soloist, and perhaps some kind of honorarium to conductor and maybe leader too are offset against usually very thin and sometimes undercharged audiences. Subscription fees from the members, though often coming to thousands of pounds per term in total (think about it – £30 or so per term at a membership of 50 people or more for many orchestras … ), do little more than close the gap and perhaps cover tea and biscuits for rehearsal breaks. So it is a sign of an orchestra of unusually high standards (and perhaps unusually good cash flow) to be willing to hire any bump musicians at all, rather than begging, persuading and calling on students and sixth-formers who could do with the experience.
Secondly, I was playing viola. Now there is a great deal of music in which none of the wind, brass and percussion parts is truly indispensable. So if you lose your second clarinet, there will be problems caused to chords, textures etc. if the gap is not plugged. But, while this was a chamber orchestra, it was far from being on a one-per-part scale. I do not think the violas ever divided in more than two (though they did that a lot), and I was one of five (having been initially hired to play violin, and then transferred later in the same evening, being the one before the concert). There were no notes that were going to get actually lost if I hadn’t been brought in; it was purely a decision to improve volume, balance, sound, etc.
So an unusual hiring then. And unsurprisingly a significant proportion of the orchestra members that I spoke to thought or at least hoped that I was a prospective (ordinary, amateur) new member, rather than some extra hired muscle.
And did the result justify the decision? Well, it is difficult for me truly to be objective about this. I was concerned with my own playing rather than rating the rest of the section, and in any case so many stereotypes are opened up by critiquing an amateur viola section that it would fit the metaphor used by one of my old lecturers about applying literary criticism to children’s books: ‘Like kicking a tiny puppy.’
But, even while my attentive watching of bow-arms to try and keep as much in up-down sync as I reasonably could, and double-check my counting, betrayed no serious musical errors in the rest of the section’s playing, one of the front desk spontaneously said to me that having me playing (this only for final rehearsal and concert, mind) had made ‘all the difference’.
The critical point here may be the follow-up comment, something about it ‘sounding supported’.
The viola has a Cinderella reputation both as always stuck in supporting roles and for actually sounding plaintive and unspectacular. Played with little energy, and particularly if the instrument is small and violin-like (but easy to play), it can fulfil the reputation rather too well, producing a somewhat thin middle-texture sound uncomfortably dominated by the depth and vigour of the cellos on one side and the brilliance of the violins on the other.
The viola that caught my attention trying it out, and continues to be possibly my favourite of the various instruments I own, is largeish rather than huge as they go. But size (the range is roughly a quarter again the length of the smallest) is far from all there is to the differences in sound, and it is certainly a big-toned, loud and gruff viola, albeit I think still mellowing, settling and becoming more responsive now, three years after I bought it. That general character suits my approach to the instrument, which is to differentiate it from the violin as much as reasonable – seeing it much more as a sort of pocket cello than an alto violin.
I was paid before playing the other weekend, so I have no real way of knowing (beyond verbal thanks from the leader) if the orchestra thought they got their money’s worth. But I can just possibly see how the extra firmness of sound from happening to bring in a ‘countercultural’ violist of the nature described above could not only punch above its weight as an addition, but actually be a real help to the cohesion and confidence of the rest of a section if it was one otherwise given to being tentative and woolly.
With apologies to Heinz, niche musical skill #57 at your service for a reasonable fee …