Pete's Blog

A Letter to the Times

Today's New York Times featured an op-ed column by a Scottish novelist named Alexander McCall Smith about his work with a classical group called the Really Terrible Orchestra. I won't print the whole piece here - it's the usual grinning half-assedness so beloved by our British cousins - just a couple of grafs and then my reply to the Letters editor. "WHY should real musicians — the ones who can actually play their instruments — have all the fun? Some years ago, a group of frustrated people in Scotland decided that the pleasure of playing in an orchestra should not be limited to those who are good enough to do so, but should be available to the rankest of amateurs. So we founded the Really Terrible Orchestra, an inclusive orchestra for those who really want to play, but who cannot do so very well. Or cannot do so at all, in some cases. ....Our initial efforts were dire, but we were not discouraged. Once we had mastered a few pieces — if mastered is the word — we staged a public concert. We debated whether to charge for admission, but wisely decided against this. That would be going too far. Our first concert was packed, and not just with friends and relations. People were intrigued by the sheer honesty of the orchestra’s name and came to see who we were. They were delighted. Emboldened by the rapturous applause, we held more concerts, and our loyal audience grew. Nowadays, when we give our annual concert at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the hall is full to capacity with hundreds of music-lovers. Standing ovations are two-a-penny. ....There is now no stopping us. We have become no better, but we plow on regardless. This is music as therapy, and many of us feel the better for trying. We remain really terrible, but what fun it is." Sir, The Really Terrible Orchestra continues a long tradition of deliberate incompetence in British music, a tradition the critic Donald Francis Tovey complained about 100 years ago. It is sporting of them to forego charging admission, but we should remember that the people who attend RTO concerts and give them standing ovations have still chosen to attend these events in preference to the other concerts available to them, concerts by musicians who, often at some sacrifice to themselves and their families, try to earn a living by making the best music they can make. The RTO are probably great, goofy fun, but are they really the jolly band of anti-elitists they pretend to be? Or are they heedlessly lowering the aggregate level of our public musical culture just for the satisfaction of appearing more egalitarian than the rest of us? I remain, sir, yours sincerely, etc. etc. The Right Honorable Algernon Smoot-Faversham Okay, I didn't really sign it that way. I just love the idea of writing an angry letter to the Times.

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