Classical music culture is permeated with judgment making. Maybe it’s necessary? Maybe it suits us? We audition musicians to discover who will play better in an orchestra, or to find out which students can develop best in a school. We’re always grading and sorting. Critics and conductors announce what pieces are better than other pieces. (Recently, I read about Jean Sibelius’s “best” symphony.)
It’s dangerous. And not because we don’t want superlative music. Artistic experience isn’t one-size-fits-all. What plays well in Los Angeles reads differently in Paris, or Dubai. We know music is changing. Well, music itself is change!
Celebrity can sell. Orchestras bank on it — Beethoven: The Complete Symphonies. But we know every single performance by Mr. Pollini is not better than every performance by Mr. Ponthus. And we should know that every scrap of paper touched by Beethoven’s hand does not encode music that is “superior” to every note penned by Muzio Clementi.
The greatest risk is in the making of music itself. If, as we play, we judge everything we do, and respond harshly to “mistakes,” or momentary lapses of taste, technique, or style, we may be so disappointed that we cannot be our “best.” In order to be really present in the moment, a certain suspension of judgment serves better. Not about the facts particularly. “Is it quiet, or quick, or connected in sound?” Fine. But when it comes to drawing conclusions, it’s better to wait, just to keep going where the lines and harmonies take us. Just to surrender at least some of our control, to the sound we perceive, to the breathing of the audience, to what Mr. Brendel called the “unseen hand.”