Why the orchestra matters

In my previous post about the proposed cuts to the Anne of Green Gables orchestra, and also in my radio interview on CBC this morning, there is one thing that I feel I have not been articulating clearly enough. The Charlottetown Festival says that reducing the orchestra by 1/3 will have no negative impact on the quality of the musical. This is a delusional statement at best, if not downright deceptive, and here’s why:

Let me make some analogies, in an attempt to better get my point across:

Imagine telling the artistic director that she has to make do with 1/3 of the cast. She gets to keep Anne, of course, and Matthew and Marilla, etc., but Mrs. Blewett really has to go. In fact, that whole Mrs. Blewett scene is really not essential to the story. And hey, come to think of it, neither the stationmaster nor Earl the mailman is really necessary either. Sure, those characters may not be essential, but they add DEPTH to the story, and contribute to a richer experience for the audience.

Now imagine that the lighting designer is told they can only use 1/3 of the colour spectrum. They get to keep the blue and the green, but sorry, no red anymore. The thing is, without red, they no longer have yellow either, because yellow is made from the combination of red and green. Sure, it’s still light enough on stage – you can still SEE all that you need to see – but something is missing: depth of colour.

And this is exactly why an orchestra cut by 1/3 is unacceptable. Musicians refer to the different instruments in an orchestra as “orchestral colours”. Each individual instrument has their own colour, but just like primary visual colours, the combination of those colours in different ways creates even more colours and shades. Playing with 13 musicians instead of 19 is exactly like taking colours away from the lighting designer. Sure, there are still enough musicians to play all the notes in a chord – you can still HEAR all the notes you need to hear – but something is missing: musical depth of colour.

And what about the “contemporary changes” artistic director Anne Allen mentions in yesterday’s press release? Does she mean electronic technology? That’s sure what it sounds like to me. Let me make another analogy:

Imagine that this year they decide to use a painted mural of a buggy instead of the real thing. Sure, you can’t actually sit in it, but it looks great, doesn’t it? But something is missing: depth, the 3rd dimension.

I bet you can see where this is going. Let’s replace the strings with a synthesizer. Sounds almost as good as the real thing, doesn’t it? But something is missing, something only a human can bring to an instrumental sound: depth of expression, the musical 3rd dimension, the ability to caress a phrase, to add warmth to the tone, to articulate a note with varying degrees of softness, to infuse passion into a musical line. And isn’t that what music/musical theatre/the Arts is all about: giving expression to that which is uniquely human.

I also believe that Anne audiences are smart enough to notice that something is missing, and I think it is very condescending to imply otherwise. Some of them may not be able to articulate it in so many words, but they will notice. They will notice because an orchestra of fewer players lacks depth of colour, and electronic sounds lack depth of expression. How can this not be a compromise to the “integrity of the score” – a compromise that will contribute to a “lesser experience” for the audience?

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8 Responses to Why the orchestra matters

  1. Mhiran says:

    Thank you Dale. This is the argument I felt was getting lost in all this discussion. Very well put.

  2. Elburz Sorkhabi says:


    As much as I disagree with cuts to arts, I have to bring the light how dated and uninformed your ideas on electronics and technology in music are.

    Aside from the fact that yellow is actually a primary color (which no combination of colors can produce…), the basis for your disregard of electronics and technology in music (in this case, the synthesizer), I feel, is heavily drawn from a very dated conception of what electronics and technology are capable of. Without writing a whole thesis here in the defense of electronics and technology in music, I’d just like to make a few logical connections clear.

    “Electronic sounds lack depth of expression” – Stated in the simplest way, a synthesizer is a tool in exactly the same way a trombone, violin, or piano are. They are all lifeless objects that gain their expression from the musician that wields them. In the hands of an amateur, a violin, trombone, and piano, all lack the “3rd dimension of expression”, much in the same way a synthesizer in the hands of an amateur lacks the same. With current technology, the varying ways in which your body can produce direct, and meaningful (“full of expression”) control over the sound, would leave you in awe.

    “How can this not be a compromise to the integrity of the score?” – If you want to be absolutely frank about it, the “integrity of a score” is lost the moment it leaves the hand of the composer. Most performances of scores (without the composer present), hypothetically, become secondary sources of the composers vision, regardless of who/what is performing, to some extent. Now, whether you value a secondary sources attempt at the composers intention, or a performances attempt at creating a new primary source from the composers material, is entirely your own choice, but what you will find is that performances simply become copies of performances that have come before them, and I could easily argue that these performances have, in reality, lost their “integrity”.

    As a professional in both fields, I would love to see the stigmas and stereotypes, possessed by both fields of artists, approached with more open minds.

    • Chris Thornborrow says:

      In defence of Anne of Green Gables and of Dale’s initial argument, the synth was never intended in the original score for Anne of Green Gables. And I would argue that you can tell the difference between a synthesized string orchestra and a real orchestra, regardless of how well the synthetic orchestra is rendered. The string orchestra takes up a larger space than two speakers. Strings are also capable of a huge range of textures, dynamics, and timbres. Though it may be possible to render these sounds with a synthesizer to a remarkable degree, I’ve yet to hear a convincing synthetic string orchestra with the same depth of expression as the real thing.

      I do agree that the synthesizer is a completely legitimate instrument (for example, it is used to breathtaking effect in John Adams’s Violin Concerto, as well as his opera “Nixon in China”). I do think, however, that you’ve missed the mark regarding the integrity of a score. This is a very grey area and not all cases are the same. In some, you are right to say that the score becomes a launch-pad for the performers visions. There are literally dozens of covers of Gershwin’s “Summer Time,” done in every style from Billy Holiday’s raunchy grass-roots take to Janis Joplin’s psychedelic vision of the same tune. But I would be hesitant to say that Beethoven’s fifth symphony is open to wild interpretation. Of course it has been reinterpreted (who could resist!), but I can’t imagine a classical music enthusiast buying tickets to the symphony with the expectation of hearing this masterpiece done in a funky amped-up style by the orchestra.

      Elburz, your argument suggest that the synth is a legitimate instrument, and that we should be open to creative reinterpretation of anything a composer produces. I agree that the synth is just as legitimate as any other standard instrument of the orchestra, and I’m sure that a strong case can be made that some composers merely present a catalyst for performers to create there own artistic choices. But in this case, cutting the orchestra by one-third was not an artistic choice by any stretch of the imagination. CEO Jesse Inman has made it quite clear that this was a cost-cutting exercise when she said, “We are continuing to look at ways to reduce the cost of the production so that we can continue to offer visitors and Islanders reasonable ticket prices here at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. This will save quite significantly, in excess of $100,000 per season.”

      This is a scary concept: the value of an artistic work being equated to a monetary value rather than a cultural value.

      I am speaking as a composer and to be absolutely frank about it, there is a huge difference thirteen musicians and nineteen musicians. There is also a huge difference between artistic reinterpretation, and slashing the orchestra for monetary reasons. While I don’t deny that many arts organizations are going through tough financial times on account of broader economic issues and cuts to arts funding, I maintain that there is no integrity in thinning the orchestra and putting musicians out of work to save a buck.

      On a final note, if you do a little research on stage lighting, which is quite different from mixing paint, you’ll find that Dale is correct when he says that mixing Green light with red makes yellow.

  3. Brian James says:

    Better yet, why not use an android to cover Gilbert’s role.

  4. maggieslies says:

    It’s heartbreaking how the heart and soul of the musical, which is it’s MUSIC, is subject to cutbacks. Of all the things that can be cut, this seems the MOST counter-intuitive.

  5. Pingback: Orchestra cuts to save money: Really? A closer look | Dale Sorensen’s Blog

  6. Dale says:

    RGB Colour Model – because that’s what this is all about…

    RGB Colour Model

  7. susan cosco says:

    Dear readers, in particular the likes of Elburz.Who cares about your deconstruction of the synth and electronic music.
    I played in the Charlottetown Orchestra for seven seasons as one of the violinists.I’ve played shows with synth, and “ain’t nothing like the real thing Baby”.
    I miss the gig, the show, my friends, the experience, the work, the enviroment of being part of the team, and that wonderful score with all it’s brilliant nuance.
    Go plug in somewhere else.
    Shame on those who brought the beginning of the END!
    TO all my friends from my times there, I love you.
    Susan Cosco

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