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Oh, those string players are so full of themselves

Yes, but what about the louts in the brass section? Orchestra members, so unified when on stage, enjoy poking fun at one another when off.

August 25, 2012|By Donna Perlmutter, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Joe Pereira plays the timpani at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Joe Pereira plays the timpani at Walt… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Insider jokes are not just for White House Correspondents' Assn. Dinners or ESPN kibitzers or Academy Awards emcees. They also crop up in discussions about symphony orchestra musicians — a society unto itself. There are jibes and even sober-minded studies that characterize personality types according to the instruments they play.

Who are the string players? The divas.

What do you call oboists? The orchestra neurotics.

And the brass? Drunken bullies.

Concert hall audiences tend to believe that those hundred or so musicians onstage — all of them remarkable virtuosos — are never less than unified in their pursuit of artistic perfection. Or at least always appreciative of one another's sections and manner of playing, even tolerant of a blasting decibel or vague pitch from nearby.

But instrumentalists easily affirm or puncture the stereotypes. Or laugh them off, with qualifications.

Consider Ariana Ghez, one of the most visible members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic because cameras at Hollywood Bowl concerts often fix on her, who says, "Yes, we oboists are neurotic — but legitimately so.

"Our instruments are more finicky. We need to sound awesome despite all the things that are going on beneath the surface."

It's those concerns, explains principal timpanist Joe Pereira, that lead to the characterization.

"Oboists are commonly said to be neurotic because they're always making reeds, always worried about the atmospheric conditions affecting those reeds, and because they wear earplugs and use black shields behind their heads," he says, to guard against hearing damage from nearby, loud timpani.

"Of course," Ghez responds, "other musicians have no idea how much time we spend making those reeds. Hours consumed doing just that — me at home at my reed desk — for, I can't say how long. That's why we're high-strung."

She says the not-so-high-strung string players have an easier time getting pitch right, that they can make on-the-spot adjustments. "For us, though, the reed is a big determiner of not just pitch, but all aspects of our sound."

Ghez is hardly alone in that idea. Pereira also has to concern himself with many intricate practices to achieve his high performance standards, practices that, he says, do not go unappreciated by his fellow band members. "They say that they can depend on my pitch. That's what I'm controlling when you see me bend down [ear to drum] to discern pitch, but there's also worry about how it's being affected by humidity."

And because Pereira sits high on his perch at the back of the orchestra and looks quite kingly, his every move attracts attention. Still, he takes other musicians' drubbings in good humor.

"Oh, so do you guys [in percussion] read music?" he says he's asked. "Do you play notes?"

After the Philharmonic's spring concert led by Herbert Blomstedt, Pereira stopped the conductor backstage to say how much he enjoyed playing under him.

"'Yes, that was a very nice war you made back there,' the visiting maestro told me,'" Pereira recalls with a smile.

Clearly, everyone is ready for a put-down. As protection, perhaps, section players do engage in self-mockery. And it seems none more so than violists, who, historically, used to step down from the more difficult violin as they aged, switching to the lower-voiced instrument that supposedly required less proficiency. With help from fellow musicians, they've filled whole pages with jokes:

What's the difference between an onion and a viola? No one cries when you cut up a viola.

What's the difference between a viola and a coffin? The coffin has the dead person on the inside.

How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving.

Retired violist Jerry Epstein recalls that former L.A. Phil director Zubin Mehta and a struggling violist had a secret pact (although everyone was on to it). When a difficult viola passage beckoned, Mehta would ask the elder string player to go open the stage door to let in some cool air or later, at the start of another tricky part, to go close it against a draft. That way the poor guy would be spared and the orchestra would sound better in his brief, crucial absence.

And now, even though violists are uniformly superb technicians, the underdog jokes still have free range. But the resident band's principal bass Dennis Trembly says these gags are an even more apt fit for his instrument, the largest of the strings. For instance:

What's the difference between violins and violas? One has more wood.

"That belongs precisely to the bass," he says with a laugh.

But then there's the French horn. No one makes fun of that player. "We all feel sorry for him," says Epstein, who has seen many come and go.

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