Not playing well enough — an example of what I mean

Last night I heard a Haydn symphony performed, by a good orchestra, one that often has a special touch with music of the classical period. And the conductor was somebody well regarded, whom this orchestra especially likes. But this performance illustrated exactly what I meant, two posts ago, when I asked if orchestras are playing well enough.

Forget about fancy points, like making unmistakable — in the tone of your playing — when the development section begins (in a movement in sonata form). There’s something more basic than that. How about making loud and soft passages actually sound loud and soft? Haydn’s music (Mozart’s, too, and Beethoven’s early stuff) thrives on these contrasts. They’re marked in the score, and in any case the loudness of any passage is usually clear from its orchestration. You’ll rarely see anything written for the entire orchestra that’s not supposed to be played loudly. So to some extent, the orchestration takes care of the contrast, but that’s not going to work so well with modern instruments, since they can play more loudly than the instruments in Haydn’s time. A full string section, especially, can make quite a noise, even without any kind of ferocious attack.

So why didn’t the loud and soft passages sound very different? I can think of four things that didn’t happen. First, the actual loudness (as measured, if anybody cared to do it, in crass, objective decibels) wasn’t very different. The soft passages were barely softer than the loud ones.

Or, if you like, the loud ones were barely louder than the soft ones. The whole piece, in other words, was mostly played mf, without much genuinely loud or soft music ever happening. (This happens more often than most of us ever acknowledge. Truly soft playing, especially, is very rare.)

Second, loud and soft playing require different kinds of energy. Loud music isn’t only louder; typically it’s either open-hearted, or ferocious, or angry, or strident (I mean intentionally so), depending on the feeling of the music. And loud notes typically will be more sharply attacked.

Soft music, on the other hand, has an energy more poised, more expectant, more rapt, more sitting on the edge of its seat — more energy, fascinatingly, than loud music often has. (When, that is, the loud music is truly loud and the soft music truly soft.) And soft notes typically have a softer attack.

Third, though this overlaps the loud point, you enact the loudness or softness in your playing. It’s not just that loud music is louder, attacked more sharply, and has a different energy; it feels different, it’s about something else. So you have to render that something else in your playing. The orchestra I heard almost never did that.

Which leads to the final point: loud and soft playing ought to look different. Oh, I can just imagine some of the howls I might get from saying this. We’re supposed to be above putting on a cheap show. We’re not supposed to act out for the audience what’s going on in the music. We’re supposed to care more for the music than for our performance. And so on, and so on, and so on. But people deeply invested, completely committed to playing music in any certain way are going to reflect that certain way in their bodies. Can’t be helped. Body language rules. It speaks more loudly, in many ways, than any conscious utterance (speech, music, conscious gestures). One look at somebody, and you can tell a lot about what they’re really feeling. The members of this orchestra looked no different when they were playing loudly than when they played softly.

This leads us to a chicken and an egg. They didn’t look any different because they weren’t playing or thinking any differently. But they also didn’t play or think differently because they weren’t moving differently.

Now we get back to their musical education. Very likely they were taught not to move very much when they played. Certainly students are often taught this now. It’s considered dangerous for your technique, and it’s also thought to be undignified, low-rent, not the kind of thing a classical musician should do.

Though I think it mostly tends to work the other way. Obviously you don’t want to move in ways that really do underline your playing, but plenty of jazz musicians move a lot, while playing cascades of notes that are blindly fast, blindingly precise, and alive both musically and emotionally. Bass players move a lot — they have to, to get around their instruments. Maybe that helps explain why the basses are often the most rhythmic section (along with the percussion) of any orchestra. Rhythm comes from the body.

So if I were working with an orchestra, and wanted to free their fortes and their pianos, their loud playing and their soft playing, I’d encourage them to move. “Show me you’re playing loudly. I won’t believe it till I see it.” That’s the kind of thing an acting teacher might do. And it works. It’s not a trick, and isn’t really aimed at the way the player looks to the audience. It’s a way of mobilizing the energy inside.

There was one moment in this performance where loud and soft really came alive. At the start of the final movement, the strings played a genuine, and fabulously energetic piano. Then they made a genuine crescendo, up to an exuberant and rhythmic forte. And I could see many of their bodies doing all of that, especially the principal cellist’s. (And maybe others. I can’t claim I looked at everybody in the orchestra.) There was also a beautiful, relaxed but vibrant piano in the repeat of the trio’s first section, in the third movement.

So here’s a terrific group, by normal standards, that at least on this occasion didn’t play well enough. If someone from the outside, someone who doesn’t listen much to classical music, had come to this concert, and said, “I was bored,” I wouldn’t say, “Oh, you don’t understand Haydn. You need some music education. You need to learn about sonata form.” I would say, “You’re right. They played the piece, but they really didn’t live it. The music never came alive.” Now, obviously, if you’re committed to getting something from the performance, and you know the forms that Haydn used, you can focus your attention, and hear what the symphony is doing.

But you shouldn’t have to work that hard. This music isn’t difficult. Most of what it’s doing should jump from the stage to the audience in completely unmistakable ways, and really making fortes and pianos come alive would do a huge amount to make that happen.

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