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.