It began with Viagra. Then came a sheath of medications of dubious value, to be followed by miracle cures for my excessive weight, hair loss and failing eye-sight. Next, a Nigerian gentleman with extraordinarily generous philanthropic tendencies who only needed me to furnish him with a small sum to cover administrative costs before he would transfer vast sums into my bank account (full details of which he urged me to pass on to him). Then came the offers of free petrol for a year, gift vouchers for stores of which, if I had heard of any of them, I would never have ventured inside and, latest of all, free membership of casinos and assorted gaming dens. Luckily my email Spam filter has long since worked out how to discard these, and I only know of their continued existence when I periodically check the Junk Mailbox to make sure a genuine offer of fulsomely paid employment has not passed me by.
I suppose I could set my Spam filters to add to the huge pile of junk they, I presume, divert from my daily inbox, any material which includes the egregious phrase “such orchestras as…”. But, despite an earnest desire never to see this phrase again, I have no choice. It is an inevitable consequence of the life I lead.
For reasons which defy my meagre intelligence, artist agencies assign to the most junior office clerk or unpaid intern the task of writing promotional biographies of artists. The agencies assume, I imagine, that it is the one area of their work that can most easily be interrupted in mid-course by the need to make the tea, refill the water cooler or replenish the towels in the washroom. But how wrong they are. If major artists knew just how despicable they come across in the descriptions their agents send out, they would surely jump ship and take control of their own musical destiny. If they knew, for example, that there are people like me who immediately assume that the quality and ability of an artist is in inverse proportion to the amount of “mesmerizing renditions”, “garnering accolades” and “recognised worldwide for insightful performances” on their biographies, they surely would realise that their agents, far from extolling their virtues, are turning them into laughing stocks.
If I read any biography that contains the words Mesmerising, Rendition or Garnering, I scream. When I read that someone has performed with “such orchestras as…” I jump out of the window – luckily I inhabit the ground floor and the windows are too small to accommodate my bulk – but you get the point.
Take this. “Wong Noat [not his real name] has performed with such orchestras as The Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and others”. Now I ask you, what orchestras ARE like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic? It can hardly mean; “He has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Braddell Heights Symphony and the Sarawak State Symphony”. Somehow it doesn’t quite have the same impact.
In its heyday, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra used to look down its collective nose at any of its players who slummed it on an occasional basis for a modest fee with the Singapore Symphony. To lump these two together as being alike shows such a fundamental lack of knowledge that even to make the suggestion is to indicate utter musical ignorance. And if it’s true of two neighbouring Asian orchestras, think how true it is of every other orchestra. An orchestra, especially a good one, is a unique animal, with its own distinct character and its own distinct personality. To say they are alike is to reveal a complete lack of musical consciousness. So when an artist is said to have played with “such orchestras as…” you can be pretty sure that whoever wrote that comment has never heard the orchestra in question.
But here’s another thing. Those “such orchestras as…” are invariably the famous ones. I don’t recall reading “he has performed with such orchestras as the Thailand Philharmonic”; no criticism of the TPO – a pretty good bunch of players all things considered. Neither have I ever seen an artist who has performed with “such orchestras as the Hong Kong Philharmonic” – an orchestra of considerable musical quality. No, orchestras seem only to be able to be compared with those in Berlin, Vienna, Chicago, Cleveland or Philadelphia. Could it be that, by selecting the great orchestras of the world and suggesting that our artist has played with similar groups, one is trying to hide the fact that our artist spends most of his time playing with the third and fourth rate bands and once, probably by accident, ended up on a platform alongside the Big Boys from Berlin?
Orchestras in Asia rarely get a look in. At best, we can read “he has played with all the major orchestras in Asia” (hmmm? ALL of them? And does that mean he has never played with any of the minor ones?). And nobody, but nobody, ever seems to have played a note with an African orchestra. Yet, the orchestras of Natal, Cape Town and Pretoria have, in their time, been a pretty impressive bunch.
No, I’m afraid the phrase “such orchestras as…” combines musical snobbery of the worst kind with musical ignorance in the extreme. As one whose job it is to edit artist biographies for inclusion in concert programmes, I have long ago given up rephrasing this detestable utterance. If an artist agency can’t be bothered to tell us precisely which orchestras the artist has played with, then I can’t be bothered to read about it and this barely illuminating line from the biography gets consigned, along with all those mesmerised renditions, garnered accolades and worldwide recognitions for insightful performances, to such places as the rubbish bin.
[this post first appeared in 2013 and is reprinted by request]