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February 22, 2008

Performance Style: Should We Believe the Critics?

There seems to have been a good deal written in the music pages of the New York Times recently about both performance style and about the visual element of classical musicians' performances, subjects I have raised in this blog a few times. It began, or at least I first noticed it, in a review of a January Philadelphia Orchestra concert that included Leonard Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony. Bernard Holland criticized the mezzo soprano soloist for her dramatic gestures, which she obviously felt reflected both the music and the text. The reviewer advised her to stand still and sing and "let the music speak for itself." A few weeks later, Holland followed with an entire column devoted to what he saw as excessive gesturing on the part of many young performers - and argued that this kind of behavior would somehow act as a barrier to developing new and younger audiences...

In an unrelated, but not completely separate, issue, Allan Kozinn made a wonderfully written and stimulating contribution to a collection of pieces by Times critics about "the music they listen to when they are not listening to timeless classics." Kozinn "admitted" that his guilty pleasure was listening to old, historic performances by the likes of Willem Mengelberg, Mischa Elman, and others from an era marked by more interpretive freedom. But he also said: "When I hear a concert or a new recording, I expect the performance to be in today's style: informed by current understanding of a composer's idiom and sound world, conscientiously adherent to the letter of the score...." (Italics mine). Later, after describing Mengelberg's wondrous recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, with its departures from Mahler's printed score (though Mengelberg carefully studied Mahler's own conducting and rehearsing of that piece), Kozinn says: "So, should we demand this kind of cowboy interpretation from modern players after all? I don't think so."

The problem is that Kozinn asks the wrong question - though he then gives it the right answer. Of course we should not "demand" any kind of interpretation. But the real question is whether we might permit it. Currently, we don't - because the vast majority of those who comment on music, and those who teach it, is that literal adherence to the printed score is the supreme duty of a performer. And I tie this to Holland's comments because I think both views contribute to the Zeitgeist today that devalues or demeans elements of flash, showmanship, and individuality from our classical music stages. In fact, what critics need to acknowledge is that they contribute, far more than they think they do, to today's "different times" that demand different interpretive standards. It is they who write in public about it, and are the provokers of public thought about it.

In the years I managed orchestras, I would occasionally hear some comments about performers whose physical gestures were seen by some purists as being "over the top." Certainly some felt that about Bernstein, and I've occasionally heard it about Yo-Yo Ma. Some of that reaction seemed to imply that the body motion was something put on for the public - but I can assure you it was not. All you had to do was see Bernstein rehearse, or Yo-Yo Ma make chamber music with friends in a private setting, to understand that they could not stop what they were doing if they tried. And why should they? The idea that such physical gesturing detracts from the music may be true for a small number of people, but it is equally true that for many in the audience it can serve as a connector to the music - a visual reflection of the music's shape and content. I cannot see any reason why our senses need to be separated.

Posted by hfogel at February 22, 2008 9:56 AM

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I agree wholeheartedly with this entry. Give me the broad tempos and sweeping emotional interpretations of Wilhelm Furtwangler over the pedantic precision of some contemporary performers and conductors any day. Historically correct performance is a myth. What matters is what will make a piece of music live now, communicate now. Showmanship doesn't hurt either, provided it's serves the piece.

Posted by: gary panetta at February 23, 2008 2:34 PM