Christopher Whiting (Foto: Gaëtan Bally)
Audience Orchestra

«The First Rehearsal Is Always a Shock»

Since 2018, violinist Christopher Whiting has led the audience orchestra at the Tonhalle Zürich.

Susanne Kübler

Playing upstairs, listening downstairs: that's the rule in concert halls. But at some point, says violinist Christopher Whiting, he had a vision: «What would it be like if we swapped seats? If the orchestra sat in the hall and the audience made music?»

That he of all people came up with this idea was no coincidence. In addition to his job as a violinist in the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, he not only attended conducting courses with David Zinman and conducted the orchestra at encores or family concerts, he also conducted amateur orchestras early on – neighbourhood orchestras, doctors' orchestras. He often saw «his» musicians sitting in the audience at the Tonhalle Zürich. This or that work would be something for them, he would think. Until the thought became a concept.

And it stayed that way for about 15 years. The project of an audience orchestra met with interest from various directors, but it was Ilona Schmiel who actually implemented it. At first it was a nail-biter, recalls Christopher Whiting: «We didn't know whether a thousand people would come forward or nobody? Or just clarinets?» But it worked out well right away, he says, «the registrations were almost exactly the line-up we needed.» In 2018, the orchestra had its first performance, with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5.

Now the audience orchestra, which had to take a break in between because of Corona, is going into its fourth round. About two-thirds of the 100 musicians have been there before, the rest are new. Some come alone, but there are also married couples, former married couples, whole families, brothers and sisters. Christopher Whiting tells of brothers who run a blacksmith's shop together, «of course they are brass players: one a trombonist, the other a horn player.» Once they forged him a horseshoe as a thank you.

What they all have in common is that they have a subscription to concerts of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich – that's the condition for taking part. It is not unusual for someone to buy a subscription just to be able to play. What they also have in common is that they seek a challenge. The conductor does not make it easy for the public orchestra: the repertoire is demanding, the rehearsals are intensive. It begins with workshops and register meetings, with musicians from the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich acting as coaches. «The first rehearsal is always a shock,» says Whiting, «for the orchestra, for the coaches, and also for me – although I know by now that it will be fine.»

Playing in an orchestra is demanding, even for good amateurs: «Mastering your own voice is one thing – but you also have to listen to others, adapt and fit in.» You have three weeks until the performance, which doesn't have to be perfect; «the goal is: as good as possible».

This time he is aiming for it with Edouard Lalo's «Symphonie espagnole» and the «Planets» by Gustav Holst. The «Planets» in particular are tricky, «there's a unison passage for the horns – it's difficult to make it sound really unison. But the ideal will be approached, step by step. And when, after the initial shock, the doubts and all the work, the performance is a success: «Then it's really a euphoric moment.»

May 2023
Sun 21. May

Audience Orchestra

Publikumsorchester, Christopher Morris Whiting Conductor, Musiker*innen des Tonhalle-Orchesters Zürich , Andreas Janke Violine Lalo, Holst
published: 09.05.2023