Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

LACO newbie

a fact-finding mission of my very own

August 28, 2008

Now that I’ve shared what I know (and more here) about classical music, it’s time to address what I don’t know. And what I don’t know could fill a piano factory (which I assume is a large space). So let’s start with the basics: What’s the difference between an orchestra, a band, and a symphony? What makes a chamber orchestra different from those three? And what on earth is a philharmonic? I’m gonna try to find the answers right now, so come along, won’t you?

Let’s start with an orchestra. Thanks to a theater history class in college, I do know the etymology of the word. It’s Greek, and its original definition was the area in front of a stage, where the chorus in ancient Greek plays would congregate. Those choruses would comment on the action and characters in the plays, often in song and dance. If you translate the root words from which the word ‘orchestra’ was created, it means “dancing place” (that was a test question!). Then, much, much later, as the importance of music in live performance grew, someplace was needed to put the musicians – and there was no better place than the orchestra. So the word ‘orchestra’ got tied to music – although it’s still used to describe areas in front of the stage, like orchestra pits and, in bigger theaters, the orchestra level of audience seating (don’t get me started on loges!).

While that was a fun digression, what I’m really interested in the definition of orchestra as it pertains to classical music. So let’s see what the Oxford English Dictionary says. It should know – it’s been around, in some form or other, since the 1860s.

OK, time for Plan B, because you need a subscription to access the OED online, and I’m not gonna shell out $295 for a 1-year subscription (although maybe I will, and have them send the bill to LACO? hmmm… devilish!). The good ole Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is free (woo-hoo!), so let’s see what they have to say.

Orchestra: “a group of musicians including especially string players organized to perform ensemble music.” Well, that makes sense. No surprises there. Here’s their definition for band: “a group of musicians organized for ensemble playing.” Well, that’s practically identical, except for the orchestra definition specifically mentioning string players. Does that mean a band doesn’t have strings?

I think I might be on to something! The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music says that a band is “an ensemble wholly of wind instruments, whether woodwind and brass or brass alone.” So, violinists, if you see that a band is holding auditions, you can skip it.

Moving on to symphony. Now here’s a surprise! Merriam-Webster has no definition for symphony, by itself, that refers to a group of musicians (although it does have four other definitions – one for an actual piece of music, and three that refer to a consonance of sounds, color, and harmony in a composition). A group of musicians, according to Merriam-Webster, is actually a ‘symphony orchestra’, which they define as: “a large orchestra of winds, strings, and percussion that plays symphonic works.” Does that mean a symphony orchestra doesn’t have any brass? Now I’m getting a headache. And it’s about to get worse:

Philharmonic (which is often shortened to ‘phil’). While this term is in Merriam-Webster’s, there is no definition – it just sends you to ‘symphony orchestra.’ So, that means those two terms are interchangable? Another online dictionary has two entries for philharmonic – one, as an adjective, meaning “appreciative of music,” and the other being “a symphony orchestra or the group that supports it.” Hmmm. I think I’ll just continue, when I hear the word phil, to think of my uncle, who, if you have an ear, nose, or throat problem and are in Springfield, Illinois, is the guy to go see.

Now that I’m thoroughly confused, let me point out that LACO is none of the things defined above. It’s a chamber orchestra. So let’s break that down: I know many definitions of chamber (a private room, a judge’s office, a part of the heart) and I’ve just learned the definition for orchestra, but what does it mean when you put the two words together?

Merriam-Webster says a chamber orchestra is “a small orchestra usually with one player for each part.” Trusty Wikipedia says that a chamber orchestra has 50 or fewer players. I was hoping the Grove Concise would have a more specific definition, but all they have is “a small orchestra.” Since none of these are terribly in-depth, what if I looked up chamber music? It is, after all, what chamber orchestras play. OK, now it’s all coming together: According to the the Brittanica Concise Encyclopedia, chamber music is “Traditionally intended for performance in a room or reception hall, chamber music is now often heard in concert halls… Standard ensembles include the string trio, string quintet, and piano trio. The chamber orchestra, usually with fewer than 25 musicians, is often used for 18th-century music and usually requires a conductor.”

What do you think? Is that a thorough definition? I imagine I’ll learn more as I start attending LACO concerts, but for now, I’m satisfied. In my next blog, I’m gonna rehearse.


Well, of course "winds" refers to any instrument that uses wind ... so brass are included. If the term is woodwinds then we nix the brass but we still include the flute even while it is often not of wood. We are very nice that way. ;-)

But I'll bet you knew all this already.

I've always thought this way about the orchestra words:

"orchestra" alone: yep, we are an orchestra of strings, winds, and percussion

"symphony orchestra": we take ourselves a bit more seriously than a mere orchestra

"philharmonic": we take ourselves even more seriously than a symphony orchestra and if we are especially serious we'll be a philharmonic orchestra, thank you very much.

Well. Maybe. Maybe not.

  • patty, August 28, 2008 11:47 am

I like your definitions, Patty! And David, just to add one more bit of clarification-slash-confusion:

A chamber orchestra does not play *chamber music*, which typically features one to ten players and does not require a conductor. A chamber orchestra plays, well, *orchestral music* that calls for an ensemble of anywhere from 11 to 50 and (unless your name is Orpheus) does require a conductor - even if he or she is simultaneously playing a violin or keyboard instrument.

Just because LACO likes to mix things up - and because the players have the chops - it also presents concerts of, yes, wait for it, *chamber music*, which give the musicians a chance to collaborate in smaller groups.

There, now. Clear as mud, yes?

  • —Michelle, August 28, 2008 10:08 pm

David, I am really enjoying your hilarious and informative blogs! I'll add that the "chamber" part of chamber orchestra comes from the original venue for this kind of ensemble: a small-ish room, or chamber, typically in a European noble-person's home/palace. Much of the early repertoire was written as entertainment for the courts, or for kings, margraves, barons and their friends. Up until the 1800's, a LACO-sized orchestra (about 40 players) would have been the norm. Beethoven and his generation started writing for larger and larger ensembles (like 90-100 players), and the symphony orchestra (or philharmonic!) became the standard size. This is why we actually have some distinct repertoire, as well as some overlap between symphony and chamber orchestra programming. I can't wait to see what you mean about rehearsing in your next blog!

  • —Addie, August 29, 2008 04:07 pm

add a comment