Needing rebirth

This will be a hard post to write, and I hope it won’t be a downer. But I heard two dismaying performances this week, and I want to understand what dismayed me.

Both performances were by young musicians. One was Janine Jansen playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Concertgebuow Orchestra in Washington, and the other, also in Washington (and also at the Kennedy Center) was by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.

The chamber orchestra seemed in advance like a dream come true, for anyone who wants classical music to change. Young musicians, very successful ones, some with jobs in major orchestras, come together to play purely for musical satisfaction, doing concerts that pay only their expenses. So here we had 18 string players, playing, purely for love, a varied program — Turina, Britten, Purcell (in a Britten arrangement), and the Tchaikovsky serenade.

And the results were dismaying. What struck me first was the often perfect execution — the fine detail, the glowing intonation, the precise ensemble. And I realized, as I listened, that execution ranks very high, among young musicians, as a goal in performance. It has to. Because without it, musicians can’t make careers. I’ve had Juilliard students tell me that if they play even one wrong note at a rehearsal, their careers are over, and I’d imagine that’s exaggerated. But the fear is real, and it’s based on truth. Standards now are so high that no one who can’t execute music on a very high level is likely to get very far.

But what this performance showed me, I thought, was how high execution ranks, now, among musical values. Sometimes I play old performances for my Juilliard students, and they don’t hear what I hear. I’ve played, for instance, a Jussi Bjorling recital from the 1950s, released on a CD called Bjorling Rediscovered (because when the recital was released long ago on LP, some of the program was left out). When I play this, I hear Bjorling’s excitement, and his authenticity. My students hear that, by their standards, he’s not together with his accompanist. I, too, can hear that this is true, but it doesn’t bother me. It bothers the students so much that they don’t care about much else.

But I don’t think they realize they rank execution so high. If you ask them what they try to do when they play, they’ll talk about feeling, expression, communication. And I know they mean it. But what I heard Sunday night from the East Coast Chamber Orchestra was execution coming first, taken so much for granted that nobody, I’m sure, even realized that it came first. And then, as I heard things, expression got added afterward, conceptually, at least (I’m not saying that things happened literally in that order).

And the expression seemed inauthentic, though I’m sure the musicians were 100% sincere. It was as if, at bottom, they had nothing to say. They responded to things in the music, of course. Something was beautiful. They’d play it beautifully, with a little swell of emotion, often enough, in the course of a beautiful passage. But the emotion seemed to have nothing to do with the music. It was inspired by the music — the musicians felt it — but it wasn’t in the music. It sounded, to my ear (and my heart), as if it was applied from the outside.

As a result, all the pieces sounded the same. The tone didn’t very, the color didn’t vary. It was as if the musicians didn’t know what the music really was for — why it had been written, what it felt like to the composer, what it felt like to the composer’s original audience, or what it should mean to us now. It was, in some way, only abstractly beautiful, and the emotions applied to it were, similarly, abstract.

Which was dismaying. I think it happens because classical music has been ripped away from our time, and exists now in a bubble off on its own where — very notably, I think — the audience these young musicians play for is made up largely of people who aren’t like them. So who are they talking to? What are they saying?

It once wasn’t like this, in past generations. Execution wasn’t a value in itself. It was a means to expression. The expression came first. And the execution, by our standards, wasn’t all that good. I don’t want to digress very much into this history, but as Robert Philips writes in one of his books — I think it’s Performing Music in the Age of Recording — musicians, when they first heard recordings of themselves, were surprised at how they sounded. Ensemble playing then got better. Toscanini, in the first part of the 20th century, also helped this trend along, by insisting on levels of execution never heard before. And after the second world war we started getting musicians who were all about execution — Von Karajan, Solti, Fischer-Dieskau.

Janine Jansen — to conclude this, now — was especially dismaying. She just about attacked her violin, almost wrung its neck. A string player we knew came rushing up during intermission to say how lucky it was that she plays a Strad, because a modern instrument couldn’t stand up to the abuse.

But she does it sincerely. She emotes — passionately, with all her soul. And without regard, I thought, for anything in the music, not the phrasing, not the tone, not anything. She played, in effect, in a hall of mirrors, where the only things real to her were her feelings. She reminded me of something George Bernard Shaw wrote in the 1890s, about a soprano who sang in The Flying Dutchman. The story of the opera, Shaw said, excited this singer. And she used the music to relieve her excitement.

But Jansen, I fear, was much worse. She throttled the music to death, emoting so violently that (for instance at the start of the last movement) musical phrases had no shape at all. They registered, to me at least, just as an almost random series of violent jabs.

The audience loved her. Classical music (and I have to thank my wife for this idea) has become a signifier for passion. That’s what it means. It’s passionate. And nobody could miss Jansen’s passion. So if that’s what you want, you got it. But the passion seems to have no content, and the idea that the music might also mean something else seems to get lost.

But then what could the music be about? In another post, I’ll take a look at the setting for mainstream classical concerts, in which it seems to me that meaning — and even the possibility of any meaning — just about vanishes.

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  1. Janis says

    Those students are playing from fear. Their teachers tell them all the rights words about feeling and expression, but they know that if they screw up on the expression, their teacher won’t care. If they miss that Eb in the third bar, they are toast. All humans know what really matters, no matter what they say matters.

    I’m thinking of the rock and pop writer/performers who were classically trained (the two that come to mind first for me are Billy Joel and Pat Benatar). They got trained up .. and when the time came for them to create, they left the classical world. Even Benatar has said in interviews that when she started singing rock, she had to consciously stop caring about technical details uber alles. The audience wasn’t sitting there going, “She should have used a chromatic cadenza.”

    Music is like Olympic training nowdays. They’ve pushed it so far that extremely microscopic gradations in technique are all they can use to distinguish one another anymore. It’s like an art school that determines who the best artist is by looking at the painting with a microscope and judging the chemical composition of the pigments because otherwise, they’d all look the same.

    Nobody looks at a painting with a microscope, though.

  2. says

    I have seen and heard this kind of thing too. Ten years (or so ago) it manifested itself in the occasional solo violinist’s stomp (I was taken seriously aback when Gil Shaham–a violinist I really respect–stompted during the Berg concerto). When Shaham stomps, you know that there is really a problem.

    With a relative handful of exceptions, young people, meaning the people who are in their early adulthood don’t “get it.” But the good news is that they never have. When we were young we were just as unaware of what we should hear in the recordings we listened to. Some of us were lucky enough to have the guidence of older people who let us know that there was something there. It takes a lot of time–years and years, and years, to understand the deep value in anything.

    I was in the unfortunate position in my youth to find deep value in things that my contemporaries didn’t understand. The unfortunate part was that I totally lacked the practical and physical ability to put my deeper thoughts into either music or words. Adulthood and a change of instruments made more things possible, and now I am actually happy that my technical ability will never reach my ideas of musical conception. It keeps me practicing.

    I feel pity for people who have the technical ability to keep them “all dressed up with no place to go.” “No place to go” is a sad emotional state when you are a musician. Hopefully the young people in the chamber orchestra will transcend that. Perhaps Jansen will achieve some musical depth at some point in her life. Perhaps her adoring fans will give her so much fulfullment that she won’t feel the need to grow emotionally.

    Now that I have had all sorts of experience in both music and life, I hear things that I never heard before, and I find that, though I feel like I know far less than I knew when I was young, I understand far more. That understanding includes being personally offended when I hear superficial or un-musically agressive performances. It is part of the price that we have to pay for all the benefits of maturity.

  3. says

    I have seen and heard this kind of thing too. Ten years (or so ago) it manifested itself in the occasional solo violinist’s stomp (I was taken seriously aback when Gil Shaham–a violinist I really respect–stompted during the Berg concerto). When Shaham stomps, you know that there is really a problem.

    With a relative handful of exceptions, young people, meaning the people who are in their early adulthood don’t “get it.” But the good news is that they never have. When we were young we were just as unaware of what we should hear in the recordings we listened to. Some of us were lucky enough to have the guidence of older people who let us know that there was something there. It takes a lot of time–years and years, and years, to understand the deep value in anything.

    I was in the unfortunate position in my youth to find deep value in things that my contemporaries didn’t understand. The unfortunate part was that I totally lacked the practical and physical ability to put my deeper thoughts into either music or words. Adulthood and a change of instruments made more things possible, and now I am actually happy that my technical ability will never reach my ideas of musical conception. It keeps me practicing.

    I feel pity for people who have the technical ability to keep them “all dressed up with no place to go.” “No place to go” is a sad emotional state when you are a musician. Hopefully the young people in the chamber orchestra will transcend that. Perhaps Jansen will achieve some musical depth at some point in her life. Perhaps her adoring fans will give her so much fulfullment that she won’t feel the need to grow emotionally.

    Now that I have had all sorts of experience in both music and life, I hear things that I never heard before, and I find that, though I feel like I know far less than I knew when I was young, I understand far more. That understanding includes being personally offended when I hear superficial or un-musically agressive performances. It is part of the price that we have to pay for all the benefits of maturity.

  4. Eric L says

    I studied briefly with Brian Ferneyhough, and he’s a remarkably well-read composer and quite brilliant. I know most of his music is not everyone’s cup of tea, and indeed, I think a lot of it isn’t my cup of tea either.

    However, there’s something I really appreciated about his music–and that’s the philosophical aspect of it. He purposefully wrote incredibly difficult and notationally-complex music that was meant to be impossible to play 100% correctly. The failure of reproducing the notes as written was in a way, a rebellion against the increased polish for conservatory performance.

    The irony? Many, many young adventurous instrumentalists took this as a challenge and now many can execute his music almost to the tee–rendering the initial intention of the music moot. And this all happened in about 20-30 years.

  5. Erica Sipes says

    Yes, this is a bit on the depressing side, Greg, but I think it is important to talk about this because I think it is all interwoven with the other issues you have been talking about on this blog and in your upcoming book. I think that in the classical music culture we have forgotten why it is that we play music in the first place. These days there is this absolutely unreasonable focus on perfection which overshadows practically everything. For soloists in particular, performing has become an Olympic sport – I think of figure skating in particular. And how did we get to this place? My guess is that it is mostly thanks to technology and the recording industry. I think that most of the younger generations these days can’t really even conceptualize how much that industry messes with our perceptions of what is humanly possible and realistic when it comes to playing an instrument. Just recently I was working with a young cellist who was very upset after missing one note in an otherwise fantastic performance…she was in tears…I told her that no professional musician gives any performance without any mistakes, that it is virtually impossible. She did not believe me at all – it was like she couldn’t even begin to comprehend what I was saying. And I know that she is not the only one that feels this way. I don’t think this is a good sign. I don’t think that this is how we(collectively) should be raising our young musicians today.

    In regards to the state of classical music today, if musicians have been growing up with this mentality for the past couple of decades – that they need to deliver note-perfect performances – if that is now what music making is all about, then it makes sense that the classical music world is in trouble. Because in order to produce that type of performance, musicians cannot truly let go and freely express themselves, communicate or honestly make music up on stage. And in my mind, then you might as well ask, “What’s the point?” and you have at least one explanation for why someone might decide to stay home instead of going to a concert. I wish we could infuse the right kind of passion back into performing and music-making again. It’s the kind of passion that is infectious that needs to overtake the recital hall again and draw back into its arms both audience members and performers. Here’s hoping that change will come in time :-)

  6. says

    (I should note that Greg himself is not accusing young people such as me of not getting it. Just that the allegation has been tossed around in the comments. But then, I’m not a performer, either, so what is there for me to get?)

  7. Janis says

    Another thing … these kids are still in the “get a grade” mindset, which isn’t a surprise since they are in school or just newly out of school. It takes a while to get past that “jump through the right hoops and get a cookie” mindset that comes from having stayed in school for a lot longer than most people. It takes a while for anyone to figure out their own standards for whether or not they have succeeded, and in the meantime the unambiguous ones are all they have.

    And in music, the only non-arbitrary standard is whether you hit all the right notes. If you did that, then at least you can’t be criticized on that basis, and any other criticism about expression or creativity you can argue against.

    I’m not sure young people just in school or fresh out will ever not be like that. That may be something you just have to age past, and as a consequence expecting them to not be like that and hence be the savior of classical music is putting too much on them. I’ve said it before, but these are the most powerless and low-ranking people in that world. Expecting them to do ALL the heavy lifting because youth is trendy is just not fair to them.

    It will not change until the people in their 40s and up decide it will. And that problem will reoccur over and over with every successive generation, with everyone expecting the simple changing of the guard to a new generation to solve the problem without any effort on anyone’s part or without any real understanding of the problem. Replacing the old primates with hip, young new ones won’t achieve a thing if the system that created the old ones is still in place. (The whole country’s finding that one out at the moment … not only that, but that “young, fresh, and hip” can be used to brand things that are neither very effectively, making young, fresh, and hip just one more way for the status quo to be strengthened.)

    Generic “young people” will not change the problem. They will inherit it and being the lower-ranking people they will conform themselves to it because they will have no choice.

    The fault lies with their instructors who shriek at “wrong notes,” the supposed masters in their masterclasses who nitpick and humiliate (if there are any such creatures left, really), with the conductors who think Toscanini had the right idea and that it’s a mark of honor to have been screamed at by the alpha baboon. We as middle-aged and older adults can’t screw things up and then just toss it at them and expect them to fix it. They won’t, and they can’t.

    Think about it this way: how old were you when you made these realizations, when music became more than rule-following and right versus wrong notes? I was past 40 before some of these things really started to surface in a deep personal way. Why are we expecting children to be making these realizations, when we didn’t hit them until we’d been out of college for over a decade? We just can’t look at 20 year olds and expect them to have the maturity of people in their 50s.

  8. Janis says

    It reminds me of teachers in grad school who used to rag on the underclassmen for only asking, “Is this going to be on the test?” The complaints were that they were stupid, only understood rote learning, and uncaring of the deeper issues.

    And so were we when we were their age.

    And why didn’t we? Because nebulous deep comprehension meant nothing compared to the grades we earned. Sure, the professors talked a good game about deep comprehension and intuition … but the grades were what got graven in stone.

    It took us decades to shake all that garbage off. It will take these kids decades to shake all their garbage off. It’s just not fair to take someone all of whose facial hair still hasn’t come in or whose bra size is still fluctuating and expect them to see these things from the point of view of someone who is closer to menopause than menarche. They don’t “get it,” okay … and they aren’t going to. Don’t expect them to. It took us decades, too.

  9. Eric L says

    Sorry to be flippant Janis, but to answer your question: “Think about it this way: how old were you when you made these realizations, when music became more than rule-following and right versus wrong notes?”

    Sometime around 19-20, a few years after I started to try my hand at composing.

  10. Eric Stassen says

    Your performance review indicates the wall that exists between classical music performance norms and those in other musical genres. It seems odd that young performers, almost all of whom have grown up listening to rock music, would be so deeply in the thrall of this hyper-perfectionist mindset — they’ve obviously been forced into it by their teachers. (One doesn’t leave an exciting rock concert thinking, “Wow! They were really accurate!”) And then virtuosos like Jansen (whom, to be fair, I have not seen perform) counter this potential sterility with an infusion of expressive violence not born of the music — this is emulating the wrong aspects of rock music performance.

    What, instead, might be learned from other genres and applied to classical performance more profitably? How about this: what exactly is the difference between The Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” or the Miles Davis recording of “Eighty-One,” and the quasi-music on the Weather Channel? What makes the first two groove in a way the latter conspicuously does not? The greatest jazz and rock performers are able to sense incredibly minute divisions of musical time, and collectively embrace a subtle absence of absolute precision and uniformity. Master classical musicians are able to accomplish similar things individually, and occasionally a conductor like Kleiber (father or son) comes along that can inspire an orchestra to truly swing, but rhythmic training is by far the weakest component of a classical musician’s education, and an awful lot of classical ensemble playing operates at the level of trying to prevent dotted eighths + sixteenths from sounding like triplets. When so much energy must be expended to achieve a Weather Channel-level degree of rhythmic competence, the idea that perfect accuracy is in fact the base camp rather than the summit becomes difficult to accept.

    So true. There are famous pop recordings that are very messy — Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” with Al Kooper feeling his way on the organ part, just for instance. And then there’s the whole punk aesthetic, in which chops are despised. Leading to a terrific Lester Bangs remark in a review of a punk band: “Not being able to play isn’t enough.”

  11. Janis says

    “It seems odd that young performers, almost all of whom have grown up listening to rock music, would be so deeply in the thrall of this hyper-perfectionist mindset — they’ve obviously been forced into it by their teachers.”

    When I was studying formally, there was no connection in my mind whatsoever between music I listened to for fun and the stuff I played. I never (and still only rarely) listened to piano music for enjoyment. Fun music was orchestra stuff, Baroque, and anything with a big voice fronting it. The stuff I played lived in a different part of my brain. To judge from what other people who got out of what one of Greg’s commenters called the “puppy mill,” I wasn’t alone. Until I discovered that Joplin collection in the main library in college — after stopping formal lessons — “music I loved” and “music I played” were non-intersecting sets.

  12. Janis says

    BTW, I didn’t hate my teacher and I still don’t remember her as a martinet or nasty. She was simply driven, perfectionist, and not at all unpleasant. (She also got a lot of good technique into me, which has stuck like cement.) As for me, I was a driven, perfectionist overachiever myself and very young. *shrug* It wasn’t that joy in the music I made was squashed out of me so much that it wasn’t even approached. The musical world was split into “what I played” and “what I loved,” and that was that. Your typical 11 year old won’t even know that that message is being sent much less than they are buying into it. Nor will I think your typical teen or college kid.

    Now, I know that the standard response to this is to say, “Well, just because YOOOUUUU were XYZ doesn’t mean that … ” but I’m not buying it. I’ve heard too many other refugee classical musicians say this independently and unprompted in these sorts of conversations. I’m willing to bet that a significant majority of talented kids in conservatories have similar personalities. You have to grab them by the neck and MAKE THEM stop trying to outperform everyone in sight. Drop them into a milieu where they are told that you might as well hang it up if you didn’t start to play your instrument before you were out of the crib, and they aren’t going to care a damn for creativity. And the ones who can’t tolerate it do a “Tori Amos” and bug out early.

  13. says

    A compelling read, Greg. Also true and yes, depressing. And hopefully not a permanent profession-wide condition.

    In addition to the no-emotion and emotion-only approaches to performing, I have heard the “as-fast-as-possible” approach far too often.

    Again, what’s the point? When speed is the most highly-rated performance value, what happens to the clarity, the phrases, and the general sense of the music? What is being communicated, other than the technical agility of the performer?

    One of my favorite examples is several recent recordings of “Children’s Corner.” The entire suite races by like a competition piece, a complete U-turn from Debussy’s motivation for composing it. Is the little shepherd a virtuoso flutist? Conservatory graduate? (I could go on…)

    Sometimes I’ve run into an oddball performance, reconceiving the piece, that really works. Mikhail Pletnev’s conducting of the first movement of the Pastorale symphony, for instance. He takes the first phrase slowly, and then races off at a madcap presto. Surely not what Beethoven had in mind, but not done to show off technically. It’s a genuine, if weird, conception of the music, and sounds completely authentic, whether I care for it or not.

  14. Robert Levine says

    I’m guessing that the chamber orchestra was without conductor? Orchestras have conductors for a reason. It’s very, very hard for a large group of musicians to come up with a musical conception that actually hangs together without external intervention – and musicians aren’t trained to do that. I suspect what you heard was a group that spent a lot of time rehearsing technical details (successfully, from your report), because they knew how to do that and because such problems are solveable, but spending very little time on concept, because whose concept would it be?

    As regards the Sibelius, it sounds like the usual problem with young soloists – an unwillingness to believe that what the composer wrote was enough.

    I’ve heard a lot of young soloists, though not nearly as many as I’m sure you have. This outdid anything I’ve encountered. Maybe the closest was Volodos some years ago, playing his version of the Tchaikovsky concerto while, on the same stage, but miles away musically, the Philadelphia Orchestra also was playing it.

    ECCO, I think, had a different problem from other conductorless large ensembles I’ve heard. Orpheus, to take the obvious example, is comparatively blank, compared to ECCO. They tend, in my experience, to play the music pretty straight. Whereas this group strained for expression, doing expressive things constantly (sudden hushes, dramatic sharp chords with a real edge, so many swells and decrescendos in the course of many phrases that my wife wrote in her review that she almost felt seasick). So I think they had a concept of each piece, even of each phrase. But it seemed like a concept that came from outside the music.

  15. says

    I heard an old recording that’s sort of making the rounds lately of Ysaye playing the finale of the Mendelssohn Concerto circa 1910. I remember being struck at how “non-classical” it seemed to sound to my ear, almost bluegrassy sometimes. Remarkable given that Ysaye was such a paragon of high classical, lauded by the major composers of his day and the father to so many prominent violinists who came after.

    I had the same feeling listening to an old 1909 Verdi Ernani recording I have – at times the orchestra went into full out marching band mode. That wouldn’t sound very classical today either – despite many in the ensemble who were of Verdi’s time, if I recall correctly.

    In both cases it seemed to be to be a basic, simple, physical energy that made it sound “un-classical”.

    I wonder why it is gone, and can’t think of anyone, performer or composer or listener, who is better off for it. It’s fabulously pleasurable to listen to.

    I agree. There’s a great sense of pleasure, individuality, sheer love of music. I could name many old recordings, too. One I remember is a Stokowski performance of the Meistersinger prelude, in which all the wind soloists take their own approach to the music, really standing out as individuals.

  16. says

    I’ll admit to having had the same kind of experience hearing high-level professionals in performance. Interestingly, I’d say I have that experience a lot more in the past few years as I’ve become more interested in the kinds of questions you pose on this blog. (I’m not blaming you!) I wonder how much you think about how your perceptions of these events is colored by the amount of time and thought you put into critiquing these kinds of performances. Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying your reactions aren’t genuine, although some of your verdicts strike me as overly harsh in terms of the kind of interpretive emptiness you describe.

    So, for example, you write: “And the expression seemed inauthentic, though I’m sure the musicians were 100% sincere. It was as if, at bottom, they had nothing to say. They responded to things in the music, of course. Something was beautiful. They’d play it beautifully, with a little swell of emotion, often enough, in the course of a beautiful passage. But the emotion seemed to have nothing to do with the music. It was inspired by the music — the musicians felt it — but it wasn’t in the music. It sounded, to my ear (and my heart), as if it was applied from the outside.” (emphases added by me)

    Those are some strong statements, delivered with quite a bit of conviction. At the very end of that paragraph you qualify your comments as being “to [your] ear,” but how much do you think your reaction says about you and your own preoccupations? Do you suppose a significant number of audience members had the same reaction? Opposite reaction? If another audience member found the performances compelling and meaningful, would you think they were fooling themselves? These are serious questions and not intended disrespectfully. I think you’re asking really good questions, but sometimes for myself, I find that being focused on these kinds of questions creates its own kind of barrier.

    There’s no easy answer to this kind of conundrum. I’m not advocating a completely unreflective approach – just wondering how much you think about this kind of thing. Do you suppose you’d have been as bothered about this kind of concert before you started your book? I’m not disputing that overemphasis on technical perfection is a real problem, but sometimes I think that has as much to do with how we listen as it does to the performances in question.

    In the past year, I’ve heard both the Boston Symphony and my college’s fairly humble student orchestra perform several of the same works, and I tend to be more compelled by hearing my own students struggle through them than I am by hearing the BSO play them effortlessly. My experience might be that the students seem more engaged and emotionally invested, but that probably has more to do with my own mindset than what’s actually happening within the players. In other words, the sheer effortlessness of the BSO can be distracting in a way that’s maybe not fair to them.

    Maybe what you’re saying about the ECCO is spot-on, but maybe you’re distracted by the effortlessness into making unfair assumptions about the underlying intent. It’s the reverse of the situation in which the poor sound quality of a historical recording can create a patina of authenticity that attracts certain listeners. Or how I suddenly have become a big fan of Wieniawski’s 2nd Violin Concerto because my daughter is learning it and I hear it in a new, personal way. I’ve accompanied the piece many times in the past and never thought much of it. Now, I find myself listening to it on CD again and again (and, yes, imagining her playing it with orchestra), perhaps as much because of what I’m bringing to it as because of the music itself. Or, perhaps I’m only now hearing the best qualities of the music because my attention has been awakened by the personal.

    In summary, I’d rather say I’d “found nothing to hear” in a performance than suggest the performers “had nothing to say.”

    Michael, those are terrific questions, and I’m grateful for them. Always good to question one’s own authority, so to speak.

    One answer I can give you is that I’m the world’s most naive listener. That may be hard for you or others to believe, but I go into performances with all kinds of preconceptions, which go right out the window the moment the music begins. For instance, the Concertgeouw concert with Janine Jansen. I’ll admit I’m a great fan of Mariss Jansons, who conducted, but I wasn’t thrilled to be at the event. To be honest, I went only to keep my wife company, since she was reviewing it. I wasn’t in a mood to hear either of the pieces on the program, the Sibelius concerto and the Rachmaninoff second symphony. But the moment the concerto began, Jansons got such a marvelous, ghostly, alive sound from the strings that my heart just lept up.I was in sheer musical heaven for a few seconds, until Jansens started to play, at which point I crashed back to earth.

    I could give you so many other examples. Siegfried and (in concert) Gotterdammerung at the Washington Opera. My preconception is that Wagner and Verdi aren’t done well anymore, but these two performances had me on my feet screaming at the end. After Siegfried I spent a long time over dinner discussing the meaning of the opera with the people I was with. The performance had been so strong, musically and dramatically, that questions of very deep meaning were genuinely raised.

    Currently I’m listening to Thielemann’s recording of the Ring. I thought, generally speaking, and my Washington experience notwithstanding, that I’ve been off Wagner. My idea of Thielemann as an opera conductor isn’t very favorable, based on the experience a friend of mine had singing a leading role with him conducting, at the Met. And, as I said, I expect not to like the singing in most Wagner performances. And finally, as I saw the boxed set of the four operas sitting around the house for weeks, after it came in the mail, my preconceived thought was, “Another Ring recording? I don’t even know who these singers are! Who needs it?”

    Finally, out of perverse curiosity, I started listening. And was completely carried away by how vivid the drama was. Das Rheingold unfolded before my eyes as a piece of compelling theater. And the singers were terrific.

    With ECCO, I was expecting the opposite of what I heard. I loved the idea of these musicians playing concerts with each other for the sheer musical pleasure of it. So I didn’t show up at the concert gunning for bear. I expected to love what I heard. And once again, naively, I was taken by surprise.

  17. says

    Oh, come on. (I’ve got a cold and am cranky. And since I’m staying home I have time to play Devil’s Advocate here.)

    I’ve been hearing versions of these same anecdotes as long as I’ve been reading about and playing classical music–going on forty years now. The cold or superficial perfectionists who supposedly have nothing to say and the over-emoters who also supposedly have nothing to say, or who say something that has nothing to do with “the music.” My entire life I’ve been hearing about young people who don’t care about “making music” and about creative-but-sloppy players who don’t respect the composer and the art enough to play with a dedication to craft, or who are just acting. (All of which I have, at various times, been accused–and guilty–of.)

    There’s a great Schnabel quote. Someone asked what he thought of a note-perfect performance by a lovely young woman. “Immaculate but no conception,” he replied.

    It’s a truism among many orchestra players, as long as I can remember, that the more you see someone move, the less emotion you are likely to hear if you close your eyes.

    I heard Arthur Rubenstein speak at Juilliard in the late 1970s and he complained about pianists who didn’t make music. He also said, “I believe one should never practice more than three hours a day, because otherwise the fingers keep moving without the mind.” Then with a twinkle in his eye he added, “and I know this is against the advice of every teacher in the Juilliard School,” to great laughter and applause. When I was at Juilliard in the late seventies, a boyfriend expressed his dismay after listening to a recording of himself that he “sounded like the typical Juilliard pianist”–accurate, fast, and not saying much. One of his friends practiced 8 hours a day, literally. And honest to god, this really happened: A student conductor told the hapless “Conductor’s Orchestra” that since the Benvenuto Cellini overture was a boring piece of music, our only recourse was to play it fast and precise. That’s over thirty years ago. (Speaking of Berlioz, wasn’t Mendelssohn horrified and saddened by the vulgarity of the Symphonie Fantastique?)

    A violinist-turned-conductor once mentioned to me that when he listened to recordings of his teenaged violin playing, he could hear the “just try to top me” energy coming through.

    The great cellist David Popper (the one who wrote the darned etudes and all those showpieces) went with a student to hear the young Casals. Amazing technique, Popper said, but it didn’t touch my heart. (At least according to a now out-of-print Popper biography I read some years ago.) One man’s heartless technician is another man’s, well, Casals.

    So there’s a young chamber orchestra playing with precision and polish and it didn’t move you. People complained about the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell for that. (And about Jascha Heifetz, and Janos Starker, and so on and so on.) You’ve articulated your perception of a kind of added-on emotion amazingly well, I must say. But so what?

    And there was a violinist who to you was overacting and you didn’t feel a connection with the music. I’m sure Leopold Mozart must have complained about that sort of thing. And how many cellists still ridicule and dismiss Jackie DuPre? (Tons.)

    By the way, I heard a Juilliard Quartet concert back in the 1970s and a composer friend complained that it was precise but lacked color and nuance (which I thought it did as well).

    With all that off my chest, Greg, I don’t think your anecdotes in this post illustrate any new, or particularly curable, problem in classical music culture. Classical music is, very simply, hard to do well, and very few really pull it off masterfully. And even when they do, much of the audience doesn’t like it or recognize it.

    Remember when at DePauw Joe Horowitz played a clip of Stokowski conducting the slow movement of Beethoven V, as an example of a kind of music making that had vanished? It seemed to me that he expected this to be a revelatory experience, but a very fine musician in the audience who specializes in early music pointed out that the dotted rhythm was distorted (performed “like triplets,” which must be a very musical thing, since I got thrown out of a Baltimore Symphony audition for doing it!), and several other not-respecting-the-composer things? As I recall, Joe took it pretty well; it illustrates for me how differently we can perceive and evaluate things.

    Since the complaints you make in this post are complaints musicians have been (legitimately) making about each other, and critics have been making about musicians, ever since people started writing this stuff down, through all the rises and falls and transformations of classical music, how is it really relevant to the rebirth of professional classical music? How’s it different than the endlessly repeated arguments about those who don’t understand the true nature of the art? (Didn’t Aristotle or Plato or someone warn against developing a professional level of skill on an instrument because it would become all about the technique?)

    What you’re describing is a phenomenon of human nature, and the challenge of being a true artist, not a recent development in classical-music culture that is related to the recent challenges in getting people to concerts.

    So there!

    My dad, who was a fine baritone and a deeply perceptive listener, loved Bjorling, by the way. I bought him Bjorling Rediscovered when it came out.

    Well! Coming as this does from you, Eric, one of my long-time friends and colleagues in the classical music change movement — this is really refreshing!

    In response I might ask you if you think performance styles/manners/tones have changed from generation to generation. I think they have, and not surprisingly so. Times change, people change. So when I talk about Janine Jansen overemoting, and someone in the 1950s complaining about overemoting then, we might not be talking about the same thing. You could go back, if you like, to my post about Mario Del Monaco some months ago, and play the Ernani excerpt I was ecstatic about. A lot of people would say he was overemoting, but in his case, it feels organic to me. Someone might want less of it, but it comes directly from the music, the drama, and the general style/ambience/culture of Italian opera of the time. Which, generally, was far more overtly emotional than Italian opera is now. So now when someone singing Italian opera emotes, vividly, even radically, it has a different meaning. It’s exceptional. And it may — as it often enough does for me when Renee Fleming does it — seem forced. Not natural. Not having roots in the music or the musical culture, but in a conception of emotion that gets applied to the music from the outside.

    That’s what I thought I heard in the two performances I wrote about. I’ve been going to classical performances for a very long time, since the 1950s, and listening to recordings, too. The recordings, for that matter, are still here, allowing us to make comparisons. And I really do think I’m hearing something new, in the performances I blogged about (and in others, of course). Something particular to our time, something that has to do (at least in my conception) with classical music growing distant from our everyday cultural experience, so that people who feel emotional about it don’t quite know where the emotion fits. I can’t think of past performances, either live or on records, that sound anything like what I heard at these two concerts. If you’d like to suggest something, I’d be very interested.

    It’s similar to something I noticed long ago, comparing (on CDs that unfortunately burned when we had our fire a few years ago, so I can’t trot them out now for everyone to hear) Shostakovich as played by the Beethoven Quartet, for whom Shostakovich wrote many of his string quartets, with really expert, committed performances by the Emerson Quartet. It’s hard not to see that the Beethoven quartet gets a grittiness the Emerson doesn’t have. I ran into something similar yet again, comparing performances of the Shostakovich piano quintet by the Juilliard Quartet (with a pianist, of course, but I don’t remember who) and by Russian performers — I think it was the Beethoven Quartet, with Shostakovich playing the piano. Again, the non-Russian performance, expert and committed though it was, sounded superficial.

    Of course, that’s an easy hit, because so much in Sh’s music reflects the horrible circumstances of Stalinist life, giving the music layers of irony and double meaning that people who didn’t live in the midst of that can understand only theoretically. I remember a student in one of my Juilliard courses one year, who’d grown up under Soviet rule. She said that there were passages in Shostakovich that reminded her of bands playing at Communist ceremonies. It would be hard for someone without that background to make that association in a visceral way — and it’s an association, I can imagine, that Shostakovich himself made.

    To generalize from this, there were associations that music in all the various standard classical styles once had, that the music doesn’t so readily have now. So one learns it as a foreign language. Kind of like composing deliberately in the style of Mozart. You’d very likely feel that as a restrictive thing — you’d define the style in terms of what happened inside it, and then what didn’t happen. But Mozart wouldn’t have experienced music that way. To him, the style was simply the way music was written, which allowed him, I’d think, to be far freer in using the conventions of his time than I’d be, if I set out to write in that way.

    Similarly with playing. Someone who grows up with a musical sensibility active in their culture will play differently from someone growing up at a time when that sensibility isn’t there. One difference I hear, between musicians of (broadly speaking) the post-world war II era and those (like Rubinstein) who date from before that, is that the postwar musicians have a classical frame around their playing, as if an important subtext was “this is classical music.” I don’t hear that in performances by people from an earlier generation. I was looking, just yesterday, at a book sitting around our Washington place called “Aspects of Music,” a collection of essays by the British critic Neville Cardus, published in 1957. And I was thinking that “music,” in that title, and at that time, would have universally been taken to refer only to classical music. If you were writing about other forms of music, you’d have to say so. “Aspects of Jazz.” “Aspects of Popular Music.” But now classical music has been dethroned, and has a special culture of its own, something audible, I think, in the subtext of performances.

    Of course, just as you say, people in past generations had their complaints and criticisms. Heifetz is an interesting example — maybe the only player I know from the past whom I’d say plays a little like the people I complained of in my post. Well, like the chamber orchestra. He was far too refined (in what Virgil Thomson would have called his vulgar way) to emote like Janine J. But he sounds a little artificial, as if the content of the music (this is, of course, what Virgil Thomson wrote in his famous review), was something to be added after the technical polish had settled in.

    For a real cultural amazement, go back to 18th century England, when Corelli was held up as the standard for composers. Then Vivaldi came along, and people thought, quite literally, that civilization would end. Too much showmanship! Too much emotion! We can, if we like, pair that with reactions to rock & roll in the 1950s, but would we really, seriously, responsibly think that the emotions and perceptions involved in the two reactions were at all the same? I’d beware of thinking that, because the words are similar, the emotions underneath are similar, too.

    One last thing about something you said, about Joe Horowitz playing that Stokowski performance. I was surprised at his choice, because the differences between that and modern performances seemed very subtle, to me. I tend to use things like a 1930s recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with Szigeti playing. There the freedom in tone and tempo is easily heard, and quite radically different from anything we’d hear now.

  18. Scott D says

    I feel compelled to comment here, if for no other reason than I happen to be a young performer in my last throws as a student.

    If I am being completely honest with myself, I see many of the criticisms above in myself. I can point to a few things that have caused me to think that way–though I would like to think that I am beginning to become more of a truly expressive musician.

    As mentioned above, youthful competition plays a huge role. I am lucky enough to attend one of the nation’s/world’s top conservatories, and I can attest that the sense of competition at these institutions can be unnerving at best, and completely crushing at worst. I consider myself lucky to be the only student at said conservatory that plays my instrument–tuba. Despite having no immediate competition from fellow tubists, I still feel immense pressure weekly in rehearsals and concerts to constantly be in top form.

    As Greg mentioned in his post, the proliferation of the classical recording with editing, splicing, etc. has produced the expectation that great musicians play perfectly–and expressively, of course, but precisely correct nonetheless.

    To be completely honest, conquering the instrument is part of expressing myself more acutely. Trying to play perfectly is not the issue here. The real issue arises, as Greg stated, when musicians let their expressive qualities wane in the name of sounding more “correct.”

  19. Eric L says

    I’d like to throw out a tangential point: I know composers who always complain that their music is not rehearsed thoroughly enough, that performances are sloppy, and don’t seem to care etc. and these are often professional, even tip-top level musicians or top conservatory performers. Some contemporary music superstars or groups (Arditti, Alarm Will Sound, JACK, Kronos, London Sinfonietta etc) and a few other exceptions notwithstanding, it’s the dirty little secret of classical music that new music is often poorly performed or disproportionally under-rehearsed/practiced.

    For performers out there: Is this desire for perfection one (out of many) reasons that some performers stay away from new music? Does some level of feeling like you’re not in complete control of what you’re playing an incentive to stay away from anything newly composed, with no performance history or tradition to serve as a guide or blueprint?

  20. Jerome Langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    A very interesting and provocative observation. Your description of a musical performance as near perfect in technical execution with a layer of abstracted passion added later is exactly the way I feel after seeing (most) current film, even the “art-house” variety. Although most of the comments here seem, understandably, to focus on the claims you are making about the education and performance practices of young musicians, I suspect that what dismayed you in the performance is also symptomatic of the culture at large. We make a fetish of technique, measurable outcomes and competition, and the expression of “emotion” in art (and beyond?) is unfortunately often reduced to an abstract and gestural “passion.”


  21. Robert Berger says

    I didn’t hear the performances you described, so I don’t know whether I would have responded the same way;chances are I would not have.

    Reaction to performances is always so subjective. But I’m bothered by the way you take two isolated performances which you found lacking is some way as an excuse to make sweeping generalizations about the state of classical music performance today.

    Yes, standards of technical execution are very high today,but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, and it may be that students at our top music schools are very worried about technical perfection. But they should be able to get over this once they have launched their careers successfully,(if they are able to).

    But I’ve heard so many performances in recent years which did not seem to me in any way the kind of clinical and soulless renditions you describe. Nor would I dismiss the great performances of Solti,Fischer-Dieskau and Solti, whom I’ve always admired greatly, as being obsessed with mere technical perfection. I always found them highly communicative musicians.

    And I am tired of the way so many critics and commentators idealize the past of classical music and use old recordings as sticks with which to bash today’s classical musicians, particularly young ones.

  22. says

    It’s interesting that most of the commenters here have focused on Greg’s comments on ECCO. Does anyone besides me have thoughts on Janine Jansen and overemoting?

  23. chuck says

    Greg, Are you related to Anne Midgette? Possibly married

    It’s well known that Anne and I are married. We often agree on musical things, though not always. And we don’t get involved in each other’s writing. We went to these concerts together, and of course talked about them. But I had no idea what tone she’d take in her reviews, or what of the various things we talked about she’d end up emphasizing.For her part, she didn’t know that I was going to blog about the concerts, and even if she had, wouldn’t have known exactly what I was going to say. Our professional lives are in some ways parallel, but they’re quite independent.

  24. Janis says

    Hey, I just realized … one of the violinists with the ECCO is Nick Kendall, the young kid with the fauxhawk in Tf3. If they happened to be a little sparse and technical when you heard them, I wouldn’t foretell the downfall of classical music from it. :-) They were probably just having a sparse-and-technical night. Ebb and flow, and all that …

  25. larry says

    Interesting reverse problem for Australian Chamber Orchestra in Anne Midgette’s opinion. Playing didnt seem to be good enough:

    “A Rough-and-Ready Ensemble”

    “The Australian Chamber Orchestra brought its energetic, if imperfect, style to town. (Australian Chamber Orchestra)”

    “When the Australian Chamber Orchestra plays in unison, it sounds like what it is: a lot of instruments playing together”

    By Anne Midgette

    Washington Post Staff Writer

    Thursday, October 1, 2009

    I am confused…

    So, to be clear, should people play badly and not together? They will be criticized for that too.

    Apparently, rock star appearance helps sell people on how groups sound. That is an interesting correlation between sound and looks.

    Is it possible that you just didnt like the group visually? Sounds like you felt a vibe from the group (maybe they were young and talented- which is repulsive to me too – i am old and not talented) and that informed how you heard them. What if it was a recording? Maybe with some artificial scratchy antiquing on it and you were told it was from the 20s? maybe that would help. The good old days when you were prenatal and you knew mengelberg and Brahms personally.

    Technical polish and expressive force are separate things. Performances — and shouldn’t this be obvious? — will have different amounts of each. The Concertgebouw, playing Rachmaninoff after the Sibelius concerto, was wonderfully polished and powerfully emotional. Also I or Anne or anyone else will react differently to the lack of either thing. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter whether something is polished or not. Though, if you’re writing a review, you pretty much have to note the fact that they’re not. But sometimes you just don’t care. Other times you do, even though you love the performance in other ways.

    What I’m saying is that there’s no rule for performances to obey. Each one is in some respects different, and you end up having feelings in response to all kinds of things in any performance. There’s no magic formula for just the right amount of technical polish, and just the right amount of emotion. For myself, I like to hear a great deal of both.

    For the record, I loved the way the chamber orchestra looked. They were having fun, enjoyed and praised each other (kisses, pats on the back), shifted positions within the various sections, and moved with wonderful freedom when they played.

    And since my reactions to scratchy old recordings vary all over the place, I don’t see how the scratch would make me like something. I think, for instance, that Galli-Curci (the leading coloratura of the very early 20th century, immortalized on endless scratchy old recordings) is a waste of time, so much lacking in vocal color, emotion, and technique that no amount of fondness for old singers (which I’ve never tried to hide that I have) could make me like her. Besides, Mengelburg told me he didn’t like her, either. (Please don’t tell him I’ve never cared for his famous Mahler 4 recording.)

  26. Janis says

    “Not natural. Not having roots in the music or the musical culture, but in a conception of emotion that gets applied to the music from the outside.”

    This is spot-on my opinion of most 20th century classical music, especially the super-abstract atonal stuff. :-) Just replace the word “emotion” with the word “structure.”

    Anyhow, swerving back to the topic at hand …

  27. linyeks gushlopiny says

    Some more interesting midgette quotes about the tokyo quartets lack of precision. Apparently they arent together enough for Midgette either.

    anyone know a positive Midgette review?

    Hard people to please apparently:

    “But what it (Tokyo Quartet) offered on Saturday was more the concept of a great quartet than the actual incarnation of one. Its performances had some of the authority of long familiarity, but also, in places, its sloppiness.

    Haydn has been a unifying thread through Tokyo’s seasons at the Y before; this year quartets from Op. 50 are on all three of the group’s programs. You might therefore have expected more crispness and zing from the ensemble’s reading of No. 1, which offered the lightness of the classical tradition but also a certain mushiness of execution. The quartet’s matched set of Stradivariuses sounded warm but a little hoarse, and its ensemble demonstrated simultaneity rather than togetherness.”

    I went back and forth about commenting on this, because I don’t want to get in debates about Anne. She doesn’t need me to defend her.

    But what surprises me here isn’t anything you say about her, but your apparent shock at any critic who says that famous musicians played sloppily. Do you think that all big-time classical performances are models of perfection? They aren’t, and every musician knows that. Whether critics hear the sloppiness is another story, but it’s often there, and you’ll often find musicians criticizing it — to friends and colleagues — in their own performances.

  28. says

    Hi Greg,

    There was a concert in Pittsburgh recently where the pop musician Ben Folds performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as his backing band. I didn’t go to the concert, but I’ve been interested in what two of our local paper’s bloggers had to say. One is the pop music critic and the other the classical music critic. Both noticed the apparent visual disinterest from the Symphony, and how that affected the audience’s (who were mostly fans of Ben Folds) concert experience and also their view of classical institutions.

    Andy Druckenbrod (classical critic):

    Scott Mervis (pop critic):

    Hi, Chris. Some people notice that symphony musicians seem uninterested even when they’re playing classical masterworks. I’m not saying they actually _are_ uninterested (though that does happen; some guest conductors absolutely don’t inspire orchestras). But the standard symphonic musician culture discourages musicians from showing any interest or emotion. I spent some time, at a series of conferences once, working with musicians from a variety of orchestras on this subject, and it’s tricky. Their first reaction, when asked why they don’t show more interest, was to complain about their conductors.

    In a gig like this, there could be an additional problem. The orchestra charts might have been rudimentary, and not at all interesting to play. That happens often in crossover gigs like this (for want of a better word). So the musicians feel a little insulted, a little used, and very bored. That’s still no excuse for looking that way, though. They’re putting on a performance for a public whose goodwill (and dollars) they need. So they ought to rise to the occasion.

  29. betsy collins says

    Wow, Allan Kozin of the New York times does not agree about Jansen. Looks like you might be alone on this criticism. Could you be off about the young group too? just curious…


    A Dutch Orchestra Plumbing the Depths


    Published: February 18, 2010

    “That said, Ms. Jansen wrested enough drama from Sibelius’s violin line to make up for the orchestra’s reticence. She animated the music with a fluid, subtle approach to dynamics and an organic sense of tempo. And she expanded her coloristic palette considerably as the work unfolded, moving seamlessly between sweet-toned lyricism, menacingly dark timbres and a gritty, textured sound that gave the solo line an unusual urgency and even, at times, fierceness. As an encore she collaborated with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Vesko Eschkenazy, on a movement from Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins.”

    Wait a second, Betsy. Aren’t you just noticing a common phenomenon in life, two human beings with two different opinions? Happens a lot, at least in my world. Allan and I have known each other for, God help me, close to 30 years. We’ve agreed in the past, and disagreed in the past. As is only natural! He’d be the first to say that his views don’t have any special authority, just because he writes for the Times.

  30. Aaron Liskov says

    As a 20 year old classical music fan and amateur student performer, these observations about perfectionism in the classical scene resonate strongly for me. It makes concert-going kind of worrisome when it feels so much like an audition – like every spectator is a juror ready to pounce with dissatisfaction on the first signs of mistakes. At a certain point, even the “best” technical concerts become less enjoyable because there is no moment to relax.

    But as a student outside the professional scene, I must add that I think the point you’re making has much broader roots, and that it can’t really be cured without attending to them. It is not just conservatory juries and students that approach classical music with the “cult of virtuosity” you’re describing. It shows up even in public high school music education, where the focus is All-State bands and the like. It dominates the community orchestra world, where many of the players were once aspiring professionals, so that they keep to the meritocratic seating system of professional orchestras. It dominates music performance at liberal arts colleges and universities. My own school’s orchestra at Columbia University has rejected even some high school All-State musicians and used musicians from the Juilliard school in their place to meet its mission of reaching the most “challenging level” of performance possible. Noticing the perfectionism that drives performance in these spheres is crucial because this is where the audiences come from. I’m not sure we can just say that the attitude problem here is confined to the stage. In a way, performers are just matching the standards of the customers, who pay to see them meet their virtuoso expectations. Classical music needs a deep-rooted structural change for any changes on the concert hall stage to be lasting and meaningful.

  31. Norma says

    I was astounded to read this. I heard ECCO play the same concert in NYC on Feb. 15. I’m not a professional musician or a music critic, but I listen to a lot of top quality music here in NY, and I thought ECCO was fabulous. And the rest of the audience agreed with me. This is the third time I’ve heard them here in NYC and each concert was played beautifully with precision, commitment, investment, and sincerity.

    Hi, Norma. It’s not unusual for people to disagree. Maybe if we talk about this a little, we can find some common ground.

    I certainly don’t disagree with you about ECCO’s precision, commitment, investment, and sincerity. I noticed all those things, and was impressed. Though maybe we disagree about the importance of their precision. It certainly was notable. I can’t blame you at all for stressing it, or even (if this matters at all) putting it first on the list of their virtues. My own sense was that they cared — unconsciously, I’m thinking — too much about precision, that the instinct to be precise came too early in their conception of their performance.

    I tend to look above all for inner factors — not just sincerity and committment, but the content of what’s being communicated. And here I found them, at least for my taste, to be oddly reticent. There was, for me, something impersonal about the way they expressed themselves. Their frequent crescendos and decrescendos all sounded the same to me. As if the subtext was, very simply, “We’re going to get louder and then softer here,” rather than something deeper, tied into the inner meaning of the passage where the expression took place, and the role of that passage in the entire piece.

    For me, one key was that, at least to my ear, the tone of voice of each piece on the program was the same. I’d think that Turina’s very Spanish piece would live in a different world from Britten and Tchaikovsky, but for me it didn’t seem to.

    Does any of this make sense to you? Based on what you said, I can see that we hear many things about the group in the same way. Maybe we can learn more about what we heard differently.

  32. says

    I heard the Janine Jansen Sibelius that night at the Kennedy Center. I found her playing, and the overall performance by soloist and orchestra both enjoyable and memorable. I did not not hear the over-emoting, mentioned in this blog and follow up series of posts.

    Interestingly enough, Janine Jansen’s performance of the Britten and Beethoven concertos on her most recent CD is restrained to my ears.

    “Restrained” can mean many things, positive and negative — especially compared to different performances and interpretations of the same work. I only mention it here in the context of whether (or not) she over emotes. To my ears, no.

    Thanks for this, David. It may be idealistic of me, but I’m always interested to know if two very divergent opinions can find common ground.

    For instance, after the Sibelius concerto, during the intermission of the concert, I talked to music professionals who objected to the violence they thought Jansen did to her violin. That’s an opinion that seems to run parallel with mine. I thought she distorted musical phrasing by adding too many expressive traits (that’s a more precise way of saying she overemoted). The professionals I spoke to thought she did violence to her violin, by playing with too much force.

    So I wonder, David, whether you might have heard something that also ran on a parallel track to what I heard. While, of course, judging what you heard more favorably. Maybe, for instance, you thought she was more expressive than most violinists are in that piece. Then, in a sense, we’d agree, because we’d both be thinking she had more than the usual amount of emotion, the difference being that I thought she had too much, and you didn’t.

    You understand that I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, or thoughts in your head. Just trying to imagine a way in which we noticed the same things in the performance, but reacted differently.

  33. says

    Thanks to everyone here for a fascinating conversation! I’m reminded of several things:

    People don’t agree about what is beautiful (or expressive, or good), or about what is too much or not enough. What moves one person deeply may make another person angry.

    It’s easy to mistake intensity for vitality.

    Winners of competitions and auditions tend to be those who make fewer mistakes. This is because judges don’t agree about what’s good, but they do agree about whether or not a mistake has been made. Since there are rewards for accuracy, that value gets prized more than other values. How to change this: start rewarding other values.

    I have been at schools and summer workshops that emphasize expressive character over precision. I love hearing the performances at those places, and students quite often have breakthroughs while working in this way.

    Precision and emotion seem to me to be linked, not opposed. The purpose of technique is to enable precise communication of character and emotion, and it’s difficult to be expressive without attending to details. (Although I’m sure I attend to details differently depending on whether my intent is expressive or precision.)

    As a teacher, player, and listener, I do experience a difference between expression that comes from inside the music and from inside the performer, and expression that feels pasted on. It may be that students and professionals take too much instruction from teachers and conductors about what the music supposedly needs; perhaps performers need more opportunities to develop their own tastes and to learn how to satisfy their own ears and hearts.

  34. X says

    Greg, what an apt and articulate description of ECCO. The music is superimposed right on top of the notes, and we’re not supposed to notice. (Thanks for noticing.) They have textbook modern-day-Marlboro playing down pat– pretend-expression through often-not-even-world-class execution with wall-to-wall vibrato on top. And by the way, I would question their definition of “expenses.” Some of the ECCO players do have jobs in major orchestras, but many are ordinary “working musicians” in and around New York. It seems extremely unlikely to me that the players are not receiving a fee for playing these concerts. Counting the musicians’ fees among the “expenses” while claiming the concerts are done for the love of music alone is misleading, and I would be willing to bet that’s what’s happening.

    I’m glad you agree with me. I know you’re speaking from experience.

    About the expenses. My understanding is that the fee the group gets for its appearances isn’t very high. And then that fee — at least for the concert I heard — has to be divided 18 ways. (Minus commissions to management.) Which then means each musician doesn’t get much. I understood “expenses” to mean that each of the 18 shares just paid for travel and lodging, with nothing left over to properly call a fee.

  35. says

    Greg, I’m arriving to this post a bit late, but here’s a quick anecdote: my sophomore year of college, Richard Goode came for a weekend to play with our orchestra and perform a recital. I attended the recital and enjoyed it, but was put off–really disturbed, actually–when he fumbled and had to stop and restart during a Bach partita. The next day, one of my music professors was visibly near tears in describing the recital as one of the most moving, glorious musical experiences of his concert-going life. People do have different opinions, but I don’t think that was the case here. He is at least 40 years my senior and obviously not perturbed by Goode’s minor mistake, whereas I was totally hung up on it, as I’m sure many of my peers were. Something generational was at work.

    But I also think, in this particular situation, it could have partly been that I was naive. Were I to sit through the same performance today, six years later, I think my experience would be vastly closer to my professor’s. When I saw that recital I was at the start of my regular classical concert-going, at a stage when (because of recordings), I believed a Richard Goode type was someone I could safely expect to play nothing but perfectly. It’s almost a sense of entitlement one feels, especially if you’re young and poor, that if you’ve spent precious dollars on a concert, it should be as close to perfection as possible. But of course you outgrow that and learn to appreciate performances for different reasons, on different levels than merely hitting all the notes.

    At the risk of rambling, it is interesting to make the obvious pop comparison here. Have I ever been traumatically let down by a performance of one of my favorite bands? No, not really. Sure, a singer hasn’t sounded in top form, but if I’m with friends, drinking, moving, talking, having a good time, precision is certainly not at the front of my mind. With classical concerts, in most instances there’s the church atmosphere that’s been written about so much, the expectations feel like they need to be great, on a higher plane. But I think some of your solutions in “Performance Reborn” get at how we can make that feeling less severe while not diminishing the technical accomplishments of the performers.

    Thanks, Brian. Not for liking my solutions (though of course I’m glad you do), but for writing with such sensitivity (and knowledge) about the issues involved.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, recordings are at least partly to blame for your expectations of Richard Goode. In the days before recordings, every performance you and I or anyone could hear was live, and so of course fallible. IOur expectations might have been more flexible, and more charitable.

  36. says

    A great provocative discussion and I am happy to have found this post and this thread. Some great antidotes presented here. Yes classical performance for the young has always been first about wrong notes vs. right notes and it continues to be that way because that is the easiest thing to quantify in music instruction. I watched the webcast of Stanley Drucker performing the Copland Clarinet concerto after 60 years with the orchestra, and it was something like his 65th performance of that same concerto with the same orchestra. I also remember hearing comments from my younger colleagues about some missed note, or that one passage or another being out of tune. To my young students it was akin to a hockey or basketball score. To me that seemed to miss the point of Stan’s total sum career with the orchestra and they totally didn’t hear what he was doing with the piece and with some of the phrasing that for me changed how I perceived some aspects of the piece. I am sure Mr. Drucker has a unique perspective of performing that piece over a life time that literally no one else on the planet has. Also as an eighty year old he does not have the same technical prowess he possessed maybe at 25; so be it. Is true art really about just keeping score? Well, we just finished the Olympics here in Vancouver. Many analogies here; Great art, like great sport is really about going for it. If you play it “safe”, then you have a “good” performance which means at the Olympics placing about 15th. If you really “go for it” then you might place in the top ten, or win a metal. Or equally you may have an equally spectacular “crash”. Our students must learn that in order to have a spectacular great performance, you also risk having a spectacular “crash” or two. though in our profession, we really don’t risk ”breaking a leg” . At the same time orchestral musicians are chosen through “blind auditions” that reward those players that play 15 second excerpts with the right notes and good rhythm. So how do you expect orchestras to have anything profoundly musical to say? Yes, well the whole way we chose orchestral musicians today is wrong. It is not really about the music, is it? In this year’s Olympics the parallel is the controversy in mens’s figure skating where some are upset by the fact someone won gold without the “quad” . The “quad” is suddenly more important than being an artist. And I am sure what I am saying is not “news” to anyone reading this…

    May not be news to many of us, but it’s wonderful to read how vividly you say all this.

    And I loved the sports comparison. Of course some of the greatest athletes take risks, and might easily crash and burn. We saw that throughout the Olympics.

    A very famous example — Babe Ruth. More home runs than anyone in his time, and also more strikeouts.

  37. says

    Haven’t taken the time to read all the other comments – sorry. But glad to find I’m not the only one worried about “musical values” these days. Thanks for this article!