the Really Terrible Orchestra

by Matthew Crain


The genius of the Really Terrible Orchestra is in its name. If it were called anything else, the listener would say, For the love of God, stop these people! Or, think it all a joke. But the name milks the venom from your fangs, and knowing what you’re going to get makes you admit that they’re really not that terrible.

Alexander McCall Smith, author of the bestselling No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, is the mastermind (Evil? Benevolent?) behind the name. A woeful bassoonist, he was tired of orchestral musicians getting all the fun just because they could play. So he and a partner founded RTO in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1995, and, says Smith in an essay in The Times, they were so bad they considered “paying people to come.” It was a hit. And from that moment, the Orchestra became a myth, something you only read about in books.

The RTO in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is the pride and joy of violinist Colleen Schoneveld, who is busy this evening passing out the parts and the phone numbers to call next time the power goes out. She introduces herself.

“You play? Ya wanna sing? Air bowing is ok–even if you play clarinet.”Usually, RTO rehearsals (and concerts) are laid-back affairs. But then came the hurricane, there’s a concert in 2 weeks, time is starting to press; George Fennell, their “sainted conductor,” can’t make it tonight, and a violist named Janet will fill in.

A few chords into Dvořák’s “Largo” she stops the group. “Let’s check out these notes there, got some strange notes going on there…”

The brass irons out its part, and then the piece starts again: the chords give way to the violins going this way and that like a clump of waving seaweed. And from this motion arises a sad Scottish air that, after telling its troubles, drops away and leaves the clarinets to carry on alone. But the guitar takes pity, the flutes join in, here comes the bass drum (after stashing its romance novel), and while the basses pace back and forth, the brass and strings tell the story all over again.

But a great confusion spreads through the room: arpeggios? Yes, there shall be arpeggios, Janet says, some in sets of 4, some in 3, some in 2.  No doubt about it: this section is hard. The flutes and strings are straining, the clarinets are dizzy, and then everything dissolves in a glissando that György Ligeti wishes he had written, a reddish blue, greenyblack smear swirling down to wallow in a sleeping bag full of Vaseline. “Hey, it’s easy to get lost huh, guys?” says Janet. “You mess up–aim for the first beat and hit it on the money.” There’s no pressure. She raises her red baton and gives them 4 beats.

But this time doesn’t sound like the last time: seems Philip Glass has written an obbligato in the clarinets. Someone asks aloud what measure they’re on. But the brass take charge just like my grandmother pumping her pump organ took charge: the brass’s confidence infects the woodwinds, the old Scottish tune returns in the strings to tell the flutes there’s trouble ahead with some tricky memories. The tympani leads the Orchestra back to those opening chords, and “Largo” ends with a somber fermata.

“First violins, be careful of your fingerings,” Janet says. Then she smiles with typical Terrible optimism: “But hey, everybody, we made it to the end!”

The Really Terrible Orchestra ( celebrates the holidays with several concerts. Better arrive early: people having fun have a way of drawing a crowd.



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