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An orchestra for the engagingly incompetent

The Really Terrible Orchestra's devoted following has surprised even its founders.

By Christopher Andreae / August 27, 2009



If you contrived to miss The Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) on its US "tour" – consisting of a single concert in New York, not inappropriately on April 1 – it may (or may not) be of interest to you to know that this gathering of openly and engagingly incompetent musicians has another concert coming up.

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It's on Aug. 30, part of this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The orchestra performs regularly on the Fringe.

If, however, you don't happen to be in the Scottish capital (the orchestra's home city) that day – or simply can't get a ticket – then I'm afraid this phenomenon will once again pass you by. This is a pity. You will be missing an experience, even if it turns out to be one you may not care to repeat. On the other hand, you don't need to be unduly troubled. The RTO seems to be going strong 14 years after it started up. It is more than likely to surface again somewhere or other in the near future.

It was founded by the (more than competent) novelist Alexander McCall Smith and friends in 1995. They are as baffled by the persistent interest in their performances as anyone. Initially it seemed likely that only very close, fond friends and relations might be willing to witness their jaunty, disjointed attempts. They reckoned they ranked more or less on a level with some less able school orchestras. And who, voluntarily, attends school concerts?

In my book, the RTO's ambitions are actually rather high – being my own talent musician-wise fathoms lower than their expertise. After years at school failing to learn the piano (and it wasn't just my reluctance to practice that ensured failure), I finally retired from that particular scene at age 18. My stunningly tolerant teacher's parting words stay with me.

"Well, Andreae," he said with a quiet, ironic smile that betrayed a large hint of relief that he would no longer have to undergo my weekly lessons, "you haven't really learnt anything over the years, have you? But never mind, you can't tell, someday you might find the little that has stuck useful in some way or other."

I felt then, as I feel now, that his optimism was nothing short of heroic.

So I find myself genuinely admiring the RTO people. I attended their dress rehearsal in Edinburgh for the New York concert in the spring. They play with great solemnity and concentration and an astonishing degree of enthusiastic, dignified self-effacement. Their sheer enjoyment is catching. They don't seem in the least hurt if the tears start to roll down your cheeks. They know they are funny. It's all grist to their mill.

I will not easily forget their rendering of Strauss's "Pizzicato Polka." Nothing quite came together. But the thing that impressed me almost more than anything else was that they all start a piece (and they are careful to choose works that are not completely beyond them) at approximately the same time, and end it similarly. But then they do have a professional musician as conductor. It helps. Somewhat.

I wondered if, in the way of things, they sometimes audition newcomers who are actually too competent to join the RTO. In fact, this has happened. A violinist who is "really very good" (and I was told this by the RTO's second violinist no less) was gently informed that she was too advanced. She was also told, however, that she could join the orchestra if she played the flute instead. For whatever reason, she did not take up the offer.

There is about the RTO an element of parody. Its members are not averse to the occasional pinprick aimed judiciously at the vast seriousness that characterizes the great orchestras of the world. My second violinist informant told me that she was considering the option of becoming first violinist. "After all," she pointed out, "it's only a matter of changing seats."

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe concert is at the Canongate Kirk, Aug. 30, at 5 p.m.

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