donderdag 22 april 2010

Truly together

It is fairly popular with companies to present themselves in commercials as top performing symphony orchestras. With employees who are fully tuned in to one another, a perfect collective timing, a visionary conductor and of course resounding (financial) results. The orchestra as a metaphor for excellent corporate performance.

I always find that annoying. Not because I don’t enjoy the artistic creations that are to be heard through the symphony orchestra. Indeed, most of them are great monuments of culture. I almost die in the beauty of a well performed symphony of Beethoven or Mahler.

What’s annoying about those ads is that in them the orchestral playing together is presented as something special and exalted. While I think the orchestra as a model of cooperation is entirely outdated. It is in fact a military organization, dating from the eighteenth century. With a leader who can visibly fully express himself and gets one hundred percent space for initiative and flow, along with a number of sometimes solo-performing key players and finally a lot of bowing foot-soldiers.

In the world of music this situation has, according to the violinist Gordan Nikolic, led to collections of excellently performing artists of consistent quality, who nevertheless produce mediocre or boring music. In his view that has to do with a shortage of space for reflection and imagination with those musicians. And this in its turn is, I think, all about the hierarchical and rigid structure of a traditional symphony orchestra.

I infer this from an interview in which Nikolic states his preference for a certain democratic dynamics within groups of musicians. Nikolic is the artistic director of the Dutch Chamber Orchestra, but he leads that from the concertmaster chair. He emphatically does not want to be a conductor, because he values "the collective conscience of a group he belongs to" as much more important. "Have fun" Nikolic calls out to his orchestra at the beginning of a rehearsal. He even proposes to someday give a concert without any rehearsal beforehand because that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. Of course this includes the risk that at a time such a concert may completely founder.

Instead of a working situation where orchestra members ask him "What do you want from us" he managed to create an atmosphere in which all together tell a story. To have something like that in an ordinary labor organization seems to be very nice to me, but the reality in most cases looks more like a traditional symphony orchestra. In this respect, the metaphor of the commercials is still not that wrong at all. The only thing is: don’t present it as an ideal model.