Untapped reality

Here are provocative (and very useful) thoughts from Eric Barnhill, a pianist I met when he was in one of my Juilliard courses, the first year I taught there, way back in 1997. He e-mailed me as follows (and of course I’ve posted this with his permission):

A belated [reply to] something you blogged in August re: regional groups. Not only are regional ensembles unsung heroes of classical music, I think there is a lot of untapped, appealing material with regional or second-tier groups that they can use to an advantage over “star” ensembles.

What I’m thinking of in particular here are string quartets, which I find quite poorly marketed. I remember being at a festival where the Miami Quartet had a residency. When the players walked onstage, I thought, “that’s the most heterogeneous looking group of four people I’ve ever seen.” You had Ivan, the Asian Delay-type hotshot; Cathy, the classic empathetic woman player; Chauncey, who is portly and black, and Keith on cello, who looks like an aging former football star. Their diversity both is and isn’t in their playing. I find such a thing so interesting – why not use it as part of the group’s identity? But all their materials say is “precise sound”, “broad palette”, the EXACT same thing other quartets all say.

Another example – my friend is in the Cassatt Quartet which is all women. They had a man, Marc Johnson from the Vermeer, join them for the Schubert C major. The minute they began playing, you could tell a man had walked onstage. His sound, his timing, was entirely different in a way I immediately, instinctively identified as male, and the entire ensemble shifted. I would think there’s so much interesting material there. But they don’t use it either.

I think these ensembles feel they would admit their inferiority if they didn’t try to ape the approach of the “world-class” institutions (classic example: a promo sheet that said “Gregory Fulkerson–American Genius”. Is there nothing more interesting about this violinist? How about that he kicks around rural Ohio? Does he like that? Does it impact his playing?). But I really don’t think they will be lowering their sights if they skip the fatuous boilerplate about how they walk on air and talk about what they’re really like. I knew a quartet that hated each other so much they drove in four separate cars to every performance. Even that, I think, is a lot more interesting to audiences than “warm tone”, etc.

In reply to him, I said I thought there’s an unspoken prohibition in classical music—performers aren’t supposed to be too individual. Students, I think, are actively discouraged (by many, if not most teachers) from expressing too much individuality. Eric thought the same thing:

I think the “being an individual” you mention is exactly it. Especially so with quartets, which are almost by nature such unique ensembles and so tied to the personalities of the players, and yet with some exceptions marketed totally homogeneously.

Similarly, though reviewers every week say “Conductor Smith is good at conducting x but bad at conducting y”, how refreshing it would be to see a conductor say,”I’m good at x and bad at y! I love the colors of the French and Spanish composers. I find the Germans stiff and pretentions, it’s just not me, I must have spent too much time by the sea as a kid.” Same situation I suppose.


I fondly remember a recital I heard Eric give some years ago. He spoke to the audience, introducing each piece. When he came to a Poulenc work, he simply said that Poulenc enjoyed Parisian cafes, and that we could hear this in his music. To remind us, he said, he had a visual aid. And with that, he put on a classy pair of sunglasses, and played the piece wearing them.

Now he has what sounds like a richly varied life. As he tells me, “I’ve devoted designing a method of music movement therapy that synthesizes ideas from Feldenkrais and Dalcroze Eurhythmics, and I got hired by two major therapy-related institutes to teach my method this fall which does a lot for its credibility. I also run a large Music Skills program, based on Eurhythmics, for ages 4 to 9, out in Westchester.” For more, see his website, cognitive-eurhythmics.com.

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