The primary difference between orchestra and chamber music is the number of players. In chamber music, there is generally one player per part while a full orchestra doubles up sections to add volume (especially in the string sections). I’ve had the pleasure of playing both kinds.
Back in college I had the outrageous experience of playing timpani in the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra when Pierre Boulez came to conduct Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The Cleveland Orchestra recording from the 1960s with Boulez was one of those seminal experiences that really turned me on to 20th-century music. As a side note, I recently learned that Paul Simon’s lyrics to You Can Call Me Al was in reference to something Boulez said at one of Paul’s parties. Boulez didn’t speak a lot of English and mistakenly referred to his hosts as Betty and Al as he was leaving instead of Peggy and Paul. That blooper became the lyrics: I can call you Betty, And Betty when you call me, You can call me Al.
I spent several summers playing timpani with the Chicago Grant Park Symphony (which consisted of members of the Chicago, Indianapolis and other orchestras in between their seasons) in the late 60s and early 70s. We had an eight week season with two different concerts each week. I was able to play much standard and some contemporary repertoire in the five years I played with that orchestra.
I now play timpani with local orchestras and chamber music with NEXUS and Steve Reich and Musicians. I am on the faculty of the Music Conservatory at Bard College where I have been playing timpani in a rehearsal orchestra that the college hires for their student conducting class. I’m not sure how many colleges / conservatories offer this kind of experience for their conducting students, but I suspect it is fairly unique. The orchestra consists of great players, one per part, which is a hybrid, but you do hear the essence of orchestral music. The class is led by the veteran Maestro Harold Farberman (conductor / composer / percussionist). Maestro Farberman had a unique career as a percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the youngest full-time player of the BSO at that time) and as the musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra (California). He is what I would describe as an old world musical disciplinarian which is probably a necessary attribute to motivate some of the younger students. The orchestra meets every other week for three hours giving each of the six conducting students a chance to conduct selections from major orchestral works. I have witnessed both tense and joyful moments as the students find their musical souls in front of an orchestra. I fully suspect they appreciate having live, professional musicians to conduct rather than prerecorded music that does not react to one’s direction. This season we played excerpts from Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, a few of Mozart / Brahms / Beethoven / Haydn symphonies and concertos, Copland’s Appalachian Spring (Farberman studied with Copland at Tanglewood in 1951) as well as several other works.
Another fun experience I have playing timpani is with the orchestra from the Festival of the Voice in Phoenicia, New York. Last year we played Rigoletto, while this coming summer we will do the Barber of Seville. Playing timpani in an opera orchestra is yet another discipline quite different from that of the symphonic orchestra. One of the challenges of Opera as a performer is all of the starts and stops and tempo changes that are constantly going on and vary from performance to performance. Playing percussion or timpani in any orchestra is very different from chamber music, especially modern chamber music. In the orchestra (especially opera orchestras) we have to count measures rests more than we are actually playing! In the end I love playing in an orchestra but prefer the repertoire I get to play with NEXUS. You can call me Garry.