"You couldn't do it a lot of places, even with high-level playing. Telling somebody, 'Here are 20 or so pieces, there won't be any rehearsal, bring a black suit and we'll go.'" So says Peter McGuire, Minnesota Orchestra violinist, about his experience playing in conductor Gerard Schwarz's All-Star Orchestra.
Schwarz, the former conductor of the Seattle Symphony and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra among other ensembles, conceived of the video project as a way to bring great orchestral masterpieces by giants like Beethoven and Stravinsky — along with newer works by American composers — into people's homes. All-Star Orchestra members were culled from major orchestras around the country. Its first season was taped in New York during August 2012, and the season aired on PBS last November. The All-Stars had all of a week to record eight episodes, each given its own theme ("Politics and Art," "Relationships in Music," "Music for the Theatre"). The orchestra recorded 19 pieces during their week in New York.
If that sounds like a lot of music to record in a week, that's because it is.
McGuire and Jonathan Magness, both Minnesota Orchestra violinists, chatted with me on the phone about the experience of joining such a unique ensemble. If you're going to tackle that much music, they say, you'd better have not only the most skilled players but also a group that will gel. "An orchestra is a team," Magness says. "There's a chemistry that's involved. When you're playing together...you get to know strengths, weaknesses, who's more energetic and willing to take risks, who's a safer player, who's rhythmically strong, who rushes a little bit." Magness says knowing these details about others helps you learn about your own playing and in turn you all perform better together.
Both musicians emphasized the desire on everyone's part to make this series happen. McGuire put it this way: "We got the music about a month out and there was a real fire under your chair, a feeling of don't dare show up and be deadweight. It was a little bit beyond the normal paranoia." Magness adds that "it was really cool to see" how the players were just "laying it down" piece after piece. It can only happen with the most in-shape musicians, Magness says. "Just having played a piece before, and knowing it, doesn't mean you're going to play it well again."
It's clear from each episode that Schwarz's desire was to focus on education. McGuire points to Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, the hugely influential music education series televised between 1958 and 1972, as something of a prototype for Schwarz (as it has been for many over the years). Again, Magness: "With regard to music education, kids need more exposure. The bottom line is that you're never going to like something if you don't try it."
"You can't actually separate education from performance," says McGuire. "[Musicians] are so immersed in this stuff, in our corner of the universe. We know how necessary it is for emotional and spiritual development. But [the audience] doesn't always." McGuire agrees with Schwarz about giving the music some context. He says the project was aiming to do what a pre-concert lecture might do, but in a shorter time, and for those who might not go an hour early to a concert for that lecture. "Context can be the only place where we hear music in a realistic place," McGuire says. "An audience might be totally confused or bored by [a piece] and then you tell them the context and there's not a dry eye in the house."
"The All-Star Orchestra series is like a United Nations of orchestras," says McGuire. This means it's not just a matter of players' skill, but their ability to collaborate. He mentions the ease of the personal interactions involved, saying no one was putting a foot down and saying, "I'm playing the solo like this."
This venture also included a major technical component. There were no fewer than 18 cameras filming the entire time, and, as Magness says, "We had to look fresh all eight hours of each day." Schwarz made sure they had an uber-professional camera crew. That had to be the case, McGuire says, because "what we do is in so many ways unchanged from 200 years ago...In order not to be a cultural dinosaur it takes coming up with projects that are up-to-date. The way the cameras were moving couldn't have happened before this era and we need to live up to that element."
McGuire notes that what the project also did was to serve as a reminder of how closely-knit the music community is. "It was a reunion of sorts," he says. "You were seeing familiar faces from school or camp. It's funny how you wind up knowing people just from playing next to them...the way they play is usually the way they are in life. If you have sensitivity and intuition, you have it, whether or not you become a musician."
The All-Star Orchestra hopes to shoot a second season this summer. Meanwhile, you can bring that magnetic machine that is the orchestra, into your home, and watch up-close as some of the best musicians in the country play together: the first season is now available on DVD.
Jessie Rothwell is a writer and music geek who curates performances in people's living rooms. She's currently based in Washington, D.C..
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