Performance

I’m back from vacation, much refreshed, back to work, but a little frightened of the schedule I, like many New York professionals, take too much for granted — constant pressure, too much to do, a whirlwind of deadlines, opportunities, and work-for-hire, which all become more than a little demoralizing.

Maybe that’s related to what I want to talk about today. When we imagine the future of classical music, we think a lot about externals — a larger, younger, more excited audience, less formal concerts, more new music played, a sense that classical music might become more important in our culture. But we don’t think much about performances themselves, and too often, I think, we picture those going on much as they do now, but in a different atmosphere, as if what’s wrong now is simply our presentation, and that the performances themselves could easily appeal to many more people, if only we could get those people listening.

Is that true? I doubt it. The way we play classical music is part of our larger classical music culture; if that culture changes, surely the performances change, too. And certainly performances were different in the past, when classical music really was more central to the world. They were freer, more flexible, and above all more individual.

This — though I’ve known it for a long time — is brought home to me by Robert Philip’s book Performing Music in an Age of Recording, recommended to me by Barney Sherman of Iowa Public Radio (thanks, Barney!). Philip (I’ve just ordered his earlier book, Early Recordings and Musical Style) documents many fascinating things, including this blockbuster: That Brahms, among others, talked about taking what we’d consider very great liberties with his scores (large tempo changes, extremes of dynamics) when they were performed for the first time, so the audience could more easily follow the shape and flow of the music.

I’ve italicized those words because I can’t too strongly emphasize them. The purpose of performance was to convey what’s in the music. An audience that doesn’t know a piece can’t follow it so easily, so the performer has to help. Later, when more people have heard the work (and when a symphony, let’s say, has circulated in piano arrangements, so people have a chance to play it at home; this of course was before recordings existed), then it can be played with fewer or more limited tempo and dynamic variation, because people listening don’t need the extra help.

This is a mind-blower. We don’t think, these days, that we have to change performances to help an audience with classical music. Our ethic is just the opposite: The music, we think, is untouchable, and the audience must do all the work, to learn how to approach the masterpieces that we play. If we help the audience, we do it by talking to them, by explaining the music in words.

But what if we took our lead from Brahms, and played the music differently? What if we remembered that we have to reach an audience, and showed our listeners in our performance what they should be listening for? We talk so much about attracting a new and younger audience, but what, exactly, are we offering them? Is the music more forbidding and austere than it needs to be — more forbidding and austere, in fact, than its composers intended?

This, of course, gets into larger questions of performance, questions about how even performances for an experienced audience should go. As I’ve said, there was much for informality, much more flexibility, and much more individuality in the way classical music was played in past generations, quite apart from any changes made to introduce new works. Simply returning to that practice ought to make classical music a lot more accessible, something I’ll talk about in future posts.

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