THE BLOG
06/20/2014 09:04 am ET Updated May 03, 2015

The Amateur and Her Audience: In Praise of the Lawyers Philharmonic

I praise the Lawyers Philharmonic of Los Angeles. I heard them perform this past weekend.

When they arranged themselves on stage in the glorious Walt Disney Hall, they looked exactly like a professional orchestra. When they played their fifth anniversary concert, they sounded so good you might not have guessed who they are: a collection of gifted amateurs devoted to their art. They were excellent. They are motivated by nothing more than their love for what they are doing.

Engrossed by a terrific recital, having flown down from San Francisco to see friends who belong to the ensemble, I concluded I would be happy to spend another evening in their company. The fact that everyone also holds a "day job" as well makes their success all the more impressive. For me as a listener anyway, my enjoyment is enhanced by identifying with the musicians in their "real" work as judges and lawyers.

I was inspired by their achievement. I envy it. They have the combination of talent and determination that is to be commended.

Their virtuosity makes me wonder. Perhaps we have been overwhelmed by a cult of perfection. In every context, we want "the best." By definition, we should prefer the superlative.

Yet there is an alternative to our obsession. By insisting there is a single ultimate experience, that it can be agreed upon, and, most damning to everything else, then acquired by anyone who can pay the price, we demean our lives.

We reduce ourselves to consumers who wish to purchase merit rather than participants who create it. We are discouraged from taking up hobbies, struggling through the early incompetence that leads to later proficiency. We lose the ability to enjoy the ordinary pleasures. What should be respected is disdained: the amateur and the audience member.

Amateurs and audience members are most of us. We should be proud of that. All artists start as amateurs, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us.

Without us, there would not be professionals much less stars. The amateur is the mother of the professional, often enough literally. The audience members are the reason for the enterprise, except for the instance of a hermit supported by a patron.

The people whom I witnessed giving their all deserve applause for more than the effort. They were good regardless of whether they were compensated. The talent needed to entertain is underestimated by those of us who do not risk doing it. The coordination of a group requires its own considerable skill.

There was a time when the amateur and the audience members were the same, because to be educated meant being able to contribute a song to the social gathering. It likely has always been true that the most passionate devotees of an instrument are the performers who would like to emulate the experts, for whose appearances they buy tickets as fans.

The best orchestra that I have experienced live remains the Cleveland Orchestra. Among the American "Big Five" as they were called in the day, its technical superiority was instilled by the legendary maestro George Szell. When I lived in the Midwestern city that does not boast of much, I subscribed to the cheapest seats available in Severance Hall: Thursday nights, last row. There over the course of a season, I heard concerts conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi that were better than any I have heard since. It's not likely that any amateur orchestra will rival the Cleveland Orchestra, but it's also arguable that few professional orchestras can surpass it.

Here's the rub. I had no idea. Since I was new to classical music, new to concert going, and simply young, I could not discern quality. I could then, as I can now, identify what I like and dislike: lush middle-brow melodies by, say, Rachmaninoff, over unpredictable experiments such as Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

Beyond that, I lacked any basis for appreciating any particular concert or recording compared to the same program by another set of players on a different night or compact disc. I could only say one was faster or louder. I couldn't even do that reliably.

I developed over time. I had to be deliberate in the auditorium, encountering a range of compositions and coming into repeated contact with the same pieces. I also read about composers, their creations, the contexts for their lives, and the programs they were expressing.

My wife, who has taught me much, says, "The world needs great audience members." She has so much knowledge of the music she loves that people assumes she herself plays. She, like me, doesn't have skill with any instrument; childhood piano lessons for us both, to no lasting effect. But we are enthusiastic about attending productions of live music. We have a range of tastes: classical, jazz, opera, rock.

The Lawyers Philharmonic concert was a delight. The major classical offering was Dvorak's lovely Eighth Symphony, established in the repertoire if not the top hit that his subsequent "New World" was destined to become. The packed concert hall responded as positively as possible: they disregarded the contemporary prohibition on clapping after each movement.

The program provided adventure in the form of lawyer Selma Moidel Smith's neoclassical Espressivo. The second half presented popular tunes such as a Mary Poppins medley, introduced by one of the two brothers responsible for the soundtrack. The law student, Caitlin Easter, who soloed in the Goldfinger movie theme received a standing ovation for a rendition that resonated through the space.

I was more than satisfied. I celebrate the amateur and her audience.