Playing more vividly, for the new audience

At last I’ve gotten to the last part of my long disquisition — which was longer than I meant it to be, and maybe longer than it should have been. Loyal readers will remember I said that the highest priority for the classical music world should be to build a new audience, and that this would require doing three things: making performances feel more lively,  playing repertoire that reflects contemporary life, and — finally — playing all music, but especially the old masterworks, more vividly.

That last point bothered some people, including one commenter who just about foamed at the mouth. So let me clarify what I mean. Most likely I put the point badly when I first stated it, because I said we should play better. That makes it sound like I’m saying we play badly now, which isn’t what I mean. We play very well now. So well, in fact, that our musical chops can be a problem, because they may well block us from seeing that our playing isn’t vivid enough.

I’ll make this point in two posts. In this first one, I’ll give some general reasons for what I’m saying. And in the second post, I’ll give specific examples of what playing more vividly might mean. Plus I’ll offer a suggestion Brahms made, about how to play music your audience doesn’t know, a suggestion that would be wildly heretical now, but which was routine when Brahms was alive.

But first, general points. One problem we often have when we play classical music is that we know it’s classical. So we supply a classical music subtext. Beyond whatever the music expresses, whatever the composer put into it, whatever expressive response we have to what the composer did, we’re also saying — though of course not in words — “we’re playing classical music.”

Which can make our performances restrained and respectful. Dignified. Pious, at times. Which might conflict with what the composer intended. Think of Mozart, who planned his music to make his audience applaud. Would he want a restrained, pious performance?

Or think of countless moments in Beethoven. The end of the Ninth Symphony. The wild place in the first movement of the Seventh, where the cellos and basses spiral through the same few repeated chromatic notes, like a serpent coiling at the bottom level of the music. Or the wild writing in the storm in the Pastoral, where the cellos play five notes to the beat while the basses play four, creating something close to pure noise. How dignified is any of that?

Or Rossini! That insane ensemble at the end of the first act of L’Italiana in Algerí, where the soprano sings that she has a bell ringing in her head, and the bass has a booming drum inside him. If you make that piece dignified, you’ve missed the entire point.

And then there’s musical style. Of course it’s important to know how Haydn differs from Brahms, and Brahms from Debussy (or fill in whatever names you like). But too often — especially in music school — these stylistic points, which ought to ignite the music from within, instead become commands and prohibitions. You must play the music like this! You must not play it like that! All of which can make musicians hold back, out of a mixture (different, of course, for each player) of caution, respect, obedience, and just plain covering their butts. I’ve had many students tell me how careful they are to play the way other people want them to, lest they displease their teachers, fail their juries, or not get jobs they audition for.

I’ve also had students tell me, for years, that they’re told not to move when they play. Which also can make their playing restrained, because (not in every case, of course) it stops them from putting their whole bodies into their playing. Then they might see the Berlin Philharmonic, and be amazed (as I’ve been) at how freely those musicians move, to the point that the basses just about dance with their instruments, each bassist doing it differently. After one Berlin Phil concert at Carnegie Hall, a musician I knew in the New York Philharmonic rushed up to me and said, “Did you see how they move? I’d be reprimanded if I played that way!”

I could make this much longer, but I’ll end with just one more point. Part of classical music orthodoxy, in our time, is the belief that performance is about the music, not the performer, and that the goal of performance is to realize the composer’s intentions. These things, too, can make musicians hold back.

Which can lead to deep contradictions. How, for instance, can you play Liszt on the piano, if your performance isn’t about you? Much of Liszt’s piano music, after all, was about him — about him playing it, about him knocking your shoes, socks, and toenails off. So if you subordinate yourself when you play it, how can you be doing what he wanted?

At the start of the score of the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven wrote, “From the heart. May it reach the heart.” So clearly this was his intention — that the music should touch its hearers, deep in their hearts. How can you make that happen, if your performance is, in some deep way, impersonal?

And what about the Mahler Second Symphony? At the end of the first movement, Mahler writes in the score, “Here follows a pause of at least five minutes.” Not an intermission. A pause. Silence. Overwhelmed silence, I’d think. Because why not go directly on to what follows? Because you can’t. Because you’re transfixed. Taken far out of yourself. Overwhelmed. You can’t go on.

And how can you feel that way, if the performance is full of respect? Respect, in this case, for what Mahler wanted means going all out.

I know there are musicians famous for giving us just the composer, only the composer. Musicians who let themselves be channels for something higher. Leon Fleisher, Richard Goode. Schabel. But the fact is that even musicians famed for this play pieces differently. Differently, I mean, from each other. So in the end, the sense that someone might create of playing only what Beethoven wants is itself an interpretive thing, something the person projects, something impersonally personal (so to speak). It’s part of a myth. A powerful myth, a good myth, but still a myth. There is no music — or at least no music communicated to an audience — without a performer. And so performers embody the music for us, each doing it differently, each doing it personally.

And the idea of realizing the composers’ intentions is tricky. Who can say what they are? The obvious ones, in fact, are expressive. Webern (as we know from a pianist he coached) wanted his music to sing and to dance. That we can know. But how he wanted particular phrases to go, how long pauses should be — that’s something we very likely can’t know. Except that, as he told that same pianist, he wanted his music to be very flexible, with great contrasts of dynamics and tempo. But still, how we render details is speculative. And even more so for composers way back in the past, who worked in a cultural and musical context unimaginably distant from ours. How, for instance, did it affect performances of Lully’s operas, when

  • people in the audience talked while the music was playing, shouted things at each other and at the performers, and prostitutes circulated in the theater
  • personal hygiene was, by our standards, pretty much nonexistent, so that in the Versailles royal palace, people went behind the stairs to relieve themselves
  • Lully conducted by banging a stick on the floor

We can find all kinds of noble restraint in Lully’s music, but how that expressed itself, under the conditions of his time, is something hard (to put it mildly) for us to know. So let’s be careful about thinking we can, in our performances, realize composers’ intentions. Our notion of these is, to put it mildly once more, quite subjective. So what we’re giving people, when we play classical music, is ourselves.

Joyful footnote: historically informed performances are often major exceptions to what I’ve been saying. They can be personal, free, vivid, even (René Jacobs!) wild. Which suggests a happy evolution. You start with the idea of doing exactly (or as exactly as you can) what was done in past centuries, using the instruments of the past, learning whatever can be learned about articulation, phrasing, and ornaments. And then, maybe, the rigor of your research shows you how little you really know, how impossible it is to simply do what (let’s say) Bach’s musicians would have done. If they even did what Bach wanted! (And of course musicians in past centuries disagreed about how to play. When Leopold Mozart said that secco recitatives should be accompanied very simply, surely that meant that many people didn’t do it. Nobody’s going to say “play simply” if everyone already does that, and the point doesn’t need to be made.)

Which then leaves you free to kick butt on your own.

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  1. says

    I’ll back you up Greg because our technically polished orchestra performances are wonderful but new audiences are looking for music with lots of personality. Fortunately there are plenty of personalities to be found in orchestras. We need to show it is a living, breathing practice. If we are allowed to play chamber music-style as we FEEL it instead of “discouraging distractions”, young audiences will SEE that there’s a lot going on. Many will SEE there is more joy, animation and shaping in playing the rep than they can hear. Because people hear with their eyes too.
    In fact I would add that we need to restore the origins of classical music in dance and movement. Add dancers and new audiences see and remember the music better.

    And as I keep saying, introductory concerts (or pre-concert events) specifically for new audiences need NOT replace the traditional concerts our patrons prefer. We can offer BOTH because we are in the business of INSPIRATION.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Rick! Your comment means a lot to me, since you played in a major orchestra for much of your long professional life.

      And I so much agree with you about how creative orchestra musicians could be. About how much personality they have, left to themselves. I’ve often thought (and not said often enough) that the musicians are the most neglected resource any orchestra has. Let them loose, as personalities and as creative musicians, and watch excitement build.

  2. says

    When I started my “real” conservatory training- for whatever that is worth – I remember being told to move less (I play flute). I think the phenomenal – conductor-less – Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a notable exception to the previous comment about technically polished performance. They play, as a chamber orchestra, like a string quartet – clear visual cues, intense, in-depth, visual listening.

    Some of the most thrilling performances that I’ve experienced were flawless (if you closed your eyes, you were transported somewhere else) as well as visually impassioned. Correct me if I’m wrong, Greg, but early videos of the Vienna Philharmonic are almost positively chilling in their visual stasis – not to mention the fact that they only very recently admitted female members!

    Soloists, by contrast, are often criticized by hard-line musicians at not being “serious” enough – the early days of Lang Lang, for example, were absolutely exquisite; as a trained listener, I seek a balance between showmanship and technical prowess. If one is subsumed (or “one-upped”) by the other, I am consistently disappointed. It is our duty as listeners and performers, I think, to constantly re-evaluate who we are as spectators and performers to best receive and communicate our intentions.

    • says

      Beautifully put, Martha. Your comment about Orpheus reminds of something beautiful I saw at the University of Maryland. There was a string quartet in residence at the School of Music there (to my embarrassment, I can’t remember which quartet it was). The student orchestra was going to play the Symphonie Fantastique, and its conductor, James Ross, had the terrific idea of inviting the quartet to lead a string sectional rehearsal. I happened to be there, and watched what happened. In no more than a few minutes, the all the strings started playing the Berlioz as if it were chamber music, taking their cue from the members of the quartet, who were leading the violin, viola, and cello sections. Both the sound and committment of the music changed subtly, but decisively. It was beautiful to hear.

      There are many exceptions to what I said, of course. I couldn’t begin to list them all (one of my personal favorites is Simone Dinnerstein), and of course I don’t come even close to knowing what all of them are. It would be wonderful to put together a database, with audio excerpts. In a future post, I’m going to link to some audio, including a joyful 1940 performance of the Marriage of Figaro overture, recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera. Not only do the musicians seem to love what they’re playing, but they seem to have joined in the stage performance. They sound like they’re consciously setting the stage for an explosive evening of comedy. I’ve seen this opera numerous times, and heard it on records, but never heard anything like this.

  3. says

    Greg, I couldn’t agree more. This still prevalent sense of classical propriety and the various ways that it has subjugated performers and stultified audiences has got to go, and good riddance. I’m not convinced that just programming variegated tapestries of repertoire, or eliminating the trappings of formal concert structure is enough…though I have tried to do all of these things in my own performances as much as possible (to the great discomfort of most presenters). That’s why this post is so important to me: it’s really all about the performer’s right to fully inhabit and reshape the music, without restriction of setting, scholarship or performance mores. That vital connection is what makes music happen, and it also brings in and keeps audiences.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Martin. if you’d ever care to say more about what you’ve tried to do in your own performances (to the dismay of presenters), I’d love to hear about it. Either privately, by email, or as a comment here. I think you’re part of an important moment i classical music history — the moment (a long one) when we move away from the present orthodoxy, and come alive again. History is on our side, I think, so the opposition will prove to be only temporary.

  4. says

    I get exactly what you are saying. We have removed the agency factor from our performances and therefore they feel lackluster, almost as if a computer were performing the music instead of a human being. That makes a lot of sense and explains a lot about my college days…