Commentary Magazine


Really Terrible Music

The whimsical Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, author of the popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of mysteries, as well as academic works on his research specialty of medical law, has an unexpected new hit on his hands. As McCall Smith told the Daily Telegraph, he and his wife founded the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) for self-confessedly poor amateur players, as a fun form of musical therapy. A mainstay since 1995 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the RTO sold out its London debut on November 3, and doubtless will soon make its New York debut.

Manhattan audiences are always eager to witness a musical car wreck, and the RTO guarantees just that, as McCall Smith, the orchestra’s bassoonist, explains: “Various sections of the orchestra stop playing if the music becomes a little bit too complex. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and occasionally our conductor has to stop us and take us back to the beginning again and the audience absolutely loves that.” The subject of a 2005 short documentary, the RTO has even released CD’s, featuring mangled versions of pop songs like King of the Road and Yellow Submarine.

Although crowds will flock to see ineptitude on display, as fans of the 1962 New York Mets proved, the RTO’s stance of proudly self-proclaimed incapacity is an innovation. A detailed new documentary from VAI, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own tells everything one would ever want to know about the excruciatingly bad coloratura soprano, who drew crowds to recital in the 1940’s.

The self-delusion of Jenkins (1868–1944) inspired a number of recent plays, like Stephen Temperley’s 2005 Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, as well as a ballet choreographed by Ohad Naharin of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company to Jenkins’s caterwauling of an aria from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. These works mix the pathos of failed aspirations with laughs at punctured pretensions. Yet many who laugh at Jenkins’s recordings are motivated by plain old cattiness, as the arch notes to VAI’s The Muse Surmounted—Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven Rivals show, ridiculing elderly women who were unfortunate enough to preserve their singing on tape for derision by later generations. This mean-spiritedness happily is absent from McCall Smith’s venture, yet the RTO on display is still uncomfortably close to audience fascination with past spectacles, like the Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose life inspired the 1996 film Shine. Helfgott’s celebrity led for a time to a spate of unlistenable Helfgott concerts and even CD’s.

Classical music may not be in its death throes, as some critics adamantly claim, but it surely does not need concerts and CD’s from the orchestral equivalent of the American Idol auditioner William Hung, who himself has launched a performing and recording career. Performers should not be encouraged to believe that the more objectionable they sound, the more the world will approve of them.