Experimenting with "Romantic Excess" in New Hampshire

Longtime readers of this blog will know that one of my pet issues in classical music is what I consider to be a loss of interpretive freedom on the part of the contemporary performer. The Zeitgeist of our time seems to dictate "fidelity to the printed score," when we actually have plenty of evidence that the composers of the 19th century did not expect that kind of rigidity. (If you want a surprise, go search online for Verdi's quotes about Toscanini--not very flattering.) I have written about this issue a number of times in this space, and from different angles; a blog might have been inspired by a particular performance that I heard, or a book I read, or just some general thoughts that flew into my head at a particular time.
Well, now I'm going to have an opportunity to try to put my beliefs into practice. I have been appointed festival director of the New Hampshire Music Festival, located in Center Harbor between the shores of Squam Lake and Lake Winnipesaukee in central New Hampshire. David Graham, the imaginative and courageous president of the festival, shares some of my feelings on this topic, and having read about them in this blog he began a relationship with me that has resulted in this exciting position. As we talked over the past year, David and I realized that we shared a deep passion for the musical experience as something transcendent, something so thrilling that one didn't walk out of a concert and immediately go to a post-concert party with a dance band playing, because the experience you had just had wouldn't let you do that.  We both believed that, with some obvious exceptions, the majority of concerts that we had been a part of were fine concerts. And we both believed that fine was a terrible word for describing a concert.  A really good performance of anything should shake you to your roots. If it is a light classical work, you should almost not be able to resist getting up and dancing or singing. If it is a late Shostakovich symphony, you should be emotionally shaken to your core. Every performance should be a performance that matters--a performance that brings a specific, deeply felt interpretive point of view from the performers. Just rendering the notes on the page is not, in fact, making music.  

The climate changed somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, and truly individualistic performers like Mengelberg, Furtwängler, Hofmann, and Huberman became a symbol of "excess" in the music world. Their freewheeling approach to music--always based on rigorous study, by the way--was dismissed as "romantic excess."

Well, David and I have decided to attempt to bring "romantic excess" back to life as a viable part of the performance tradition. This year's festival, from July 9 through August 15, will begin the approach that will push the boundaries of conventional performance style. All of the performers are being encouraged to stretch themselves, not to indulge in excess for its own sake but to feel comfortable taking whatever risk they feel is musically apt. I intend to send all of the conductors and soloists the Mengelberg recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony--as an ear-opener to other possible ways of making music, but certainly not to imply or suggest a specific interpretive viewpoint.

This first summer is a transition year. I know that we will not have the complete dramatic impact that I believe is eventually possible. Part of that is because this is an experiment, and we're going to undertake it slowly and carefully. By next summer, it is our hope to actually hold symposia exploring the subject of musical interpretation, with exponents of a wide range of viewpoints brought together to explore the subject and perhaps to enliven each others' thinking as well as that of our public. We will be choosing performers, of course, precisely for their approach to music-making. By "approach to music-making," I don't mean one specific interpretive approach. I mean the freedom for a performer to come at the music from a view that might well be extremely unusual but is actually bound up firmly with the emotional content of the music--an approach that is centered on communicating that emotional content with as much impact and individual personality as possible.

In our symposia and in other talks with the public, we will be playing recordings from the beginning of the 20th century, focusing on performers who had direct links with the great composers of the second half of the 19th. One particular myth that we will be out to destroy is that there is one "correct" way to perform any piece of music--that simply rendering the black specks on a page known as notes precisely as they are printed will guarantee a transmission of the composer's intent.

For information about this year's festival, visit the NHMF website. I can add that in addition to good music, you will enjoy some of nature's most beautiful scenery.

May 8, 2009 12:07 PM | | Comments (2)



It's been about 12 years since I've seen a concert in my home state, but the dates of this festival overlap almost perfectly with my summer trip back there this year from Nashville. I am elated at the vision you've shared here, and can't wait to attend one or more performances (July 30 and August 13 appear to be the big days). Thanks to the NHMF for adding another reason to move back after my wandering. NH's deck is really stacked now.

Agreed, as well, on the scenery. The Lakes Region is one of the most stunningly beautiful places I've ever been. I wish you all the best in your time with this festival, Mr. Fogel.

Your thought reminds me of something Furtwangler wrote (which I'm probably mangling in paraphrase):

"I hate going to hear a Beethoven symphony and instead hearing a report on a Beethoven symphony."

Best of luck with this festival!


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