an orchestra that lets loose

did they know this was their last happy performance?

New York

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 it’s like the recent performance I heard at the Good Shepherd-Faith Church near Lincoln Center, the audience won’t be just clapping, and jumping to its feet. It’ll 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 don’t 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 than drudgery.

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 he’d 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 don’t 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, it’s over,'" said Brent Dobson, a 25-year-old Wild Ginger trumpet player with the boyish face of an enthusiast. "But here you’re 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 aren’t there because they love the group," quietly added Adam LaMotte, 25, a violinist, backtracking a bit. "They just like the stability. It’s a job." And a poignant thought came from Brad Gemeinhardt, who’s 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 they’ll ever give."

When I asked what Wild Ginger rehearsals are like, four people answered all at once: "Chaos!" Which wouldn’t seem promising if I hadn’t already heard them all explain that, in normal orchestras, they feel "like puppets," that it’s "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, who’s 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 don’t 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, I’d have to rethink my ideas about orchestral unanimity.
But then the performance surprised me right from the start. It began with Mozart’s 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 I’d thought the piece had lost forever.
Next came Weber’s 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. That’s 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 Beethoven’s "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. Goodman’s part) they’d 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, I’d swear, better than I’ve ever heard them. At the climax of the first movement, Beethoven writes dissonant, almost ghastly chords. All my musical life I’ve been waiting to hear the full tearing power I’ve imagined they should have; Wild Ginger gave that to me.

I could list more problems. Details, sometimes, got lost in the rush (though maybe that’s because the church was so echoey). Soft music almost always slowed down, while loud music sped up. "That’s natural," Mr. Goodman told me, but to my ears it’s a cliche. Still, the group plays beautifully, with loving warmth and plenty of precision.
Purists, as I’ve 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 there’s 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 Ginger’s concert thrilled me. It thrilled its audience, some 300 people of all ages. There’s the germ of a new paradigm here, a new approach to classical music, and to classical musicianship. I’m 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