The time I didn't hear the San Antonio Symphony, and realized how great they sound

My admiration for the level of artistry of the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, which has always been great, reached new heights last night, albeit by rather indirect means. . . .

I have strong objections to major professional ballet companies that choose to use "canned" (prerecorded) music for their live performances rather than hiring and paying live musicians, and on principle I generally would not attend such a presentation. However, April and I made an exception last night, for a very good reason. As a pre-opening-curtain prelude to the Moscow Ballet's presentation of "The Nutcracker" in San Antonio, a very talented local high-school violinist, Emily Averyt, whom it is our delight to know, had been asked to play "The Swan" by Camille Saint-Saëns, accompanying Moscow's prima ballerina; and Emily's lovely and generous family had treated April and me to a pair of tickets to see and hear her play. (She was terrific!) Clearly, it would have been awkward to then leave as the curtain was opening(!), so we stayed for the ballet. As one would expect, the dancers of the Moscow Ballet were quite wonderful, the choreography was imaginative, the sets were stunningly beautiful. And the music?

I don't know who the musicians on the recording were. I presume they were some of Moscow's finest. Were they bad? Not at all. The description that went through my mind was "highly competent." But . . . years ago, when I was a member of the San Antonio Symphony, I played The Nutcracker dozens of times, and I still remember how we sounded. As I listened last night to each number, to each phrase, my "mind's ear" kept automatically playing our old SAS version alongside what I was hearing. And last night's version suffered significantly by comparison. All the notes were there, but so much was missing. Expression. Subtlety. Clarity. Warmth. Line. It needed to sparkle, not plod along predictably. This is "The Nutcracker," folks! If it doesn't sparkle, what's the point?

OK, so perhaps to some extent the bland, homogenized, Dolbyized sound of last night's orchestra was in fact attributable to the fact that it was a recording coming through speakers. (Which is part of my point, to be sure.) But even taking that into account, I just think my San Antonio Symphony of the 1990s played a lot better. And here's the thing: the San Antonio Symphony is much better today than it was 20 years ago.

San Antonio has a world-class group of symphonic musicians. (Even if it took hearing a prestigious Russian orchestra to help drive that point home.) If only the management of the San Antonio Symphony would realize the musicians in the orchestra deserve every dollar they make—plus a lot more.