There are two quick ways to understand why the Wild Ginger
Philharmonic might be important. First, you could go to one of their concerts. If
its like the recent performance I heard at the Good Shepherd-Faith Church near
Lincoln Center, the audience wont be just clapping, and jumping to its feet.
Itll be shouting, even roaring with excitement.
And the second way to understand
Wild Ginger starts with a dirty little secret in the classical music world, something
well-known to insiders, if not the public -- many classical musicians dont like
their jobs, especially those who play in orchestras. Happy symphonic ensembles do exist
(the St. Louis Symphony seems to be one, and so does the Cleveland Orchestra). But a study
by a Harvard psychologist measured orchestral job satisfaction in America, and found it
notably low. A year ago, when I told a fiercely talented young cellist that the New York
Philharmonic would be playing all the Beethoven symphonies, she cried out, "Oh, the
poor musicians!" Orchestral players, she was thinking, play these works too often, so
to run through them once again -- masterpieces though they are -- might be nothing more
Which is why David Goodman, a percussionist turned
conductor, founded Wild Ginger four years ago (taking the name from a picture of a wild
ginger plant in the dictionary, which hed stumbled on while looking for something
hip that might begin with "x"). In it are anywhere from 35 to 55 musicians, most
of them in their 20s, graduates of major music schools or students there. Four times a
year they retreat to the country, where they rehearse day and night for a week. Then they
play concerts in New York, Philadelphia and Massachusetts. They dont get paid. Quite
the opposite; they fund their own participation, flying in at their own expense from
around the U.S., and even from abroad.
I sat down with Mr. Goodman and
seven members of the group to find out more. "At the end of most concerts you say,
Well, its over,'" said Brent Dobson, a 25-year-old Wild Ginger trumpet
player with the boyish face of an enthusiast. "But here youre happy and
involved." "Everyone gives 300%," said Lev Zhurbin, 20, a violist so
exuberant that he presents himself, pop-star style, with just a single name, Ljova.
"Most people in major
orchestras arent there because they love the group," quietly added Adam
LaMotte, 25, a violinist, backtracking a bit. "They just like the stability.
Its a job." And a poignant thought came from Brad Gemeinhardt, whos 20
and plays the French horn. "Last summer I heard a concert by high school students at
Tanglewood. They were having the time of their lives. I wondered if they knew this was the
last performance like this theyll ever give."
When I asked what Wild Ginger rehearsals are like, four
people answered all at once: "Chaos!" Which wouldnt seem promising if I
hadnt already heard them all explain that, in normal orchestras, they feel
"like puppets," that its "not OK to sound individual," and that
their performances have to be, above all, about technique, about getting the notes right.
So when they get to Wild Ginger,
they let loose. "People need to make noise and break things," said Mr. Goodman,
whos 23 but focuses his thoughts like someone a dozen years older. "In Wild
Ginger you can be personal," said Alexandra Knoll, a 27-year-old oboist, speaking (in
a clipped South African accent) with such reserve that her next words came as a surprise.
"You can be selfish. And then what you give is more genuine."
But dont orchestras need
discipline? Mr. Goodman (who modeled Wild Ginger on Summerhill, the
famous-in-the-60s British school where children are supposed to learn at their own
pace) would frown at that word. And what emerges, as we all talk more, is the amazing
notion of a spontaneous orchestra, where interpretive decisions are made by consensus --
and then sometimes changed during performances, where a cellist might get a new idea and
dizzily lead the whole cello section down an unexpected path while the rest of the players
follow, spiking the musical conversation with new ideas of their own.
I heard that myself, at the concert that sparked my own
excitement. At one point -the concertmaster went off on his own. After a few wild moments,
the other first violinists caught his drift and joined in, leaving me breathless; I loved
the surprise, but to accept It, Id have to rethink my ideas about orchestral
But then the performance surprised
me right from the start. It began with Mozarts all-too-familiar "Eine Kleine
Nachtmusik." "Yuck," I thought, "not that again!" But Wild
Ginger played with nothing less than joy, pulling me into the music with them. In the
third movement, the concertmaster, playing the tune of the middle section as a solo,
slowed way down, then sped up gradually, making a mockery (purists would say) of proper
Mozart style, but restoring a freshness and sense of adventure Id thought the piece
had lost forever.
Next came Webers first
clarinet concerto, and here the biggest shock came from a member of the audience, who --
as Wild Ginger swept to a climax with a single, thrilling voice -- jumped up and clapped,
right in the middle of the music. Thats an unkempt violation of concert etiquette
(or, once again, that would be the purist view), though not unknown in past centuries;
Wild Ginger loved it.
And then came Beethovens
"Eroica" symphony, a much more complicated piece, and there they lost me by
changing the tempo more than a dozen times in the first few minutes. Here (intentionally,
at least on Mr. Goodmans part) theyd reclaimed the performing style of bygone
conductors like Wilhelm Furtwangler. Furtwangler, though, could keep the music moving
forward; Wild Ginger, at least to my ear, lost the thread. Yet the performance still was
constantly surprising, and some passages came off, Id swear, better than Ive
ever heard them. At the climax of the first movement, Beethoven writes dissonant, almost
ghastly chords. All my musical life Ive been waiting to hear the full tearing power
Ive imagined they should have; Wild Ginger gave that to me.
I could list more problems. Details, sometimes, got lost in
the rush (though maybe thats because the church was so echoey). Soft music almost
always slowed down, while loud music sped up. "Thats natural," Mr. Goodman
told me, but to my ears its a cliche. Still, the group plays beautifully, with
loving warmth and plenty of precision.
Purists, as Ive said, may
hate Wild Ginger, and its future, too, is tricky. Can it grow? If it plays many concerts,
Mr. Goodman thinks, the group will lose its spontaneity. But then how can Wild Ginger make
enough money to survive as anything more than a retreat from mainstream musical life? It
raises small amounts from many avid donors, and now theres a plan for the musicians,
working individually, to approach foundations (which normally respond to grant
applications written by professionals). Will that work?
And yet. -- Wild Gingers
concert thrilled me. It thrilled its audience, some 300 people of all ages. Theres
the germ of a new paradigm here, a new approach to classical music, and to classical
musicianship. Im eager to see what happens next.
[I believe so much in this group that I've contributed money. For
more about them, and to hear a long sample of their fabulous playing, go to their website.]
Wall Street Journal, September 21, 1999