Playing more vividly — second post

[Continuing my thoughts about why we should play more vividly, if we want a new audience.]

Here’s an exercise.

Look at the score of a Haydn or Mozart symphony. You’ll see contrasts between piano and forte, between soft music and loud, occurring throughout, clearly marked by the composers. Who — very clearly — wanted parts of the music to be loud, and other parts to be soft. And, evidently, relished the contrast.

So now listen to performances, live or recorded, and ask yourself if you’re hearing the contrasts the composers clearly liked so much. Often I don’t. Maybe even most of the time, I don’t. Often I can tell that contrasts are intended, that the musicians mean to make them. So the music meant to be loud might be played with a little more vigor, with a somewhat sharper attack.

But is it really louder? So unmistakably louder that anyone listening — even someone who never pays attention to classical music — would say, “Yes, that’s the loud part”?

Very often not. And so the music — how expert everything else about the performance might be — is subtly (or not so subtly) emasculated. It doesn’t sound lively. It doesn’t sound vivid. Or certainly not as vivid as it should.

And remember why I’m making these points. Our current audience is disappearing. We need a new one. So now imagine a new audience, full of smart people who listen to lots of music (nonclassical), who read books, go to movies, and — even if they’re new to classical music — can perfectly well hear much of what’s going on.

What’s their reaction going to be to the expert, well-bred performances I’ve been describing, where many things are elegantly done, but where loud and soft passages don’t sound loud and soft?

Well, first, they won’t hear what the composers intended. Second, they may get the idea (and who could blame them?) that the music doesn’t have many contrasts. That it goes along, sounding nice, but from moment to moment in many ways the same. They may think it’s more or less uneventful (or “calm,” as nonprofessionals who love classical music so often describe it).

So, while they’ll like what they hear, they won’t get much energy from it. They’ll come to a concert, think it sounds nice (which it certainly does), and then won’t return. If you ask them, they may well say that they mean to come back (I’ve had this experience). But then they don’t, very likely because nothing they hear makes them eager to.

And of course the same thing happens in music of other periods. And in other genres, in chamber music, choral music, art songs, you name it. (I once heard a live performance of the Schoenberg Suite, Op. 29, conducted by Pierre Boulez, so uniform in loudness that you’d have thought Schoenberg marked no dynamics in his score, which isn’t remotely the case.)

So now I’d suggest another exercise, something that will sound elementary, maybe even insulting. But try it! If you perform classical music — whether you’re a violinist or a mezzo-soprano or the Cleveland Orchestra — find some smart people well-schooled in nonclassical music, and ask them to listen to you play, or sing. Ask them (silly as this might sound) to raise their hands when the music gets loud.

If they don’t do it — right away, all of them, immediately, with crisp precision — every time the score is marked forte, then you’re not playing as vividly as you should. Many things about classical music are subtle. If you were playing a piece in sonata form, and — with this same nonclassical audience — asked for a show of hands at the point when the recapitulation diverges from the exposition, I’m sure no hands will go up.

And that’s nobody’s fault. This audience hasn’t learned sonata form yet.

But loud and soft? That’s basic. Fundamental. Easily heard, or it ought to be. A matter of the body — of the ears and the gut — not the mind. So if people who know how to listen, how to pay attention to music they hear, can’t tell, with razor precision, when you mean to be singing or playing loudly, then it’s your fault.

The existing classical audience? They don’t seem to mind, if they don’t clearly hear piano and forte. I’m sure that’s because they love classical music so much — because they love the whole experience, the beauty, the elegance, the  silence of the concert hall, the formality, everything.  They don’t ask for more.Some, of course, have a deep and loving knowledge of the music they hear, its history, forms, meaning. But still they largely take what they’re given, preferring one performance over another, often enough, sometimes vociferously, but still not asking for major change in how classical music is played.

Which is fine. These are, as I’ve known them, lovely people, caring people, people who shouldn’t be lectured to, or told that what they want, what they love, is somehow deficient.

But the new audience! That’s another story. They haven’t built up any love for the classical concert hall, or the opera house, or the intimate theater where they’ll hear chamber music. Or for the performers they’ll hear, or for any style of playing that’s commonly met with. They don’t hate classical music, they’re curious about it, many of them (most of them?) like it, from hearing recordings. But if they’re going to come to performances, they want something that makes an impact.

So, a couple of thoughts. If you’re a performer, if you’re a soloist, or if you play or sing in an ensemble (of any size) — and you’re playing for a new audience — ask yourself: Are the contrasts in the music I play clear enough? Can anyone hear them? Contrasts of volume, of tempo, of sound, of emotional tone (that last is especially crucial in Beethoven).

And what about climaxes? Are they unmistakable? If you’re playing the Eroica Symphony, and you come to that moment in the first movement development section, where the chords are sharply dissonant, can anyone in your audience hear that’s a climax? Does it feel like one, again not in theory, but, unmistakably, as you’re playing it?

And now a word about pandering. Some people, I’m sure, will say that I’m simplifying classical music, asking for less subtlety in how it’s played, and instaed wanting performances to stress things that are obvious. I’d say that’s not true at all, that you can be as subtle as you like, but that contrasts of loud and soft still should be heard. They’re meant to be obvious. Climaxes likewise, though I’ll grant that there are styles of playing, highly favored by some connoisseurs, that mute contrasts, focusing instead on an overall flow, and structural detail.

But I think something’s wrong if that becomes the dominant playing style. To return to things I said in my last post, we may once again be asking classical music to be restrained and well-bred, as if strong contrasts were vulgar.

And Brahms — as serious, as classical a composer as ever lived — had what today would seem like a surprising view of all this. I’ll quote from an thought-provoking book by Robert Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording:

Joachim was to conduct an early performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in Berlin in 1886, and he had written to the composer asking for more guidance about tempi. Brahms then sent Joachim a marked-up score of the symphony with a letter: ‘I have marked a few tempo modifications in the score with pencil. They may be useful, even necessary, for the first performance. Such exaggerations are only necessary where a composition is unfamiliar to an orchestra or a soloist. In such a case I often cannot do enough pushing or slowing down to produce even approximately the passionate or serene effect I want. Once a work has become part of flesh and blood, then in my opinion nothing of that sort is justifiable anymore.'” The view of Brahms, Boult and Billow, that audiences and performers need more underlining of changes of mood in a new  work than they do in later performances, is an idea that would be unlikely to occur to a modern musician.

So Brahms wanted contrasts enhanced, when musicians don’t know a piece! And, of course, when an audience doesn’t know it.

But Philips says more:

Quite apart from the performance of new works, there is a more general point to be made about the approach to performing in concert. In the days when music was not accessible on CD and audiences had fewer opportunities to hear a work, the most important task for the musician was to put the music over, and to make clear what was happening in the piece. Each performance was unique. Once it had started, it continued inexorably through to the end, with or without mistakes, bad tuning, moments of confusion. It was an attempt to put over a narrative in a way which would make sense to the audience at a single hearing. It was not primarily an exercise in giving a perfect rendering of the score. Many of the old-fashioned habits, which have now died out, can be seen in the light of this need to put over the narrative thrust of the music to an audience. This applies particularly to the old-fashioned ways of creating points of emphasis: portamento, tempo rubato, changes of the tempo itself. Good modern musicians have their ways of rendering the narrative clear too, but by comparison their playing tends to be more even in pace, and less highly characterised in detail…. There are no doubt many reasons for this development, but one of them must be that there is less sense that audiences have only one opportunity to understand what is going on. Today, most music is available on CD, and a member of the audience can always acquire it after the concert. At a concert a hundred years ago, it was ‘now or never’, and this was reflected in the manner of performance.

Yes, as Philips says, those times aren’t ours. But if we want to build a new classical audience, the past (at least in this way) has returned! People who don’t know the music, who haven’t listened to it on a recording, who are as new to the Brahms Fourth Symphony as Joachim’s audience was in 1886 — they’re the ones we’ll be playing for. If we don’t make the music we play clear to them, the first time they hear it, they may never come back.

I’d hoped to link to some music, to performances that demonstrate what I’m talking about. But my work time is winding down. Thursday I go on vacation, and for the last few days, I’ve been in the midst of a large, ongoing family gathering. A happy one. but it hasn’t left me much time to blog.

So let me give just one musical link. It’s to a performance of the overture to the Marriage of Figarorecorded live in 1940 from a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast. The conductor is Ettore Panizza, who’s not remembered as a great name. Irving Kolodin, in his detailed history of the Met (one of my favorite books on classical music, because Kolodin goes year by year, telling us what things were like in detail — repertoire, casting, performance quality, finances) calls Panizza routine.

But this performance is anything but. It’s exciting, sharp, happy. And, above all, theatrical. These musicians, you’d swear, aren’t just sitting in the pit. They’ve jumped onto the stage, where they’re setting the scene — exuberantly — for the comic opera that follows.I’ve heard this opera many times live, and many times more on recording. But I’ve never, not once, heard the overture played like this.

The soft parts, I think, could be softer. (At least on the close-miced recording. I can imagine they sounded softer out in the house.) But the loud parts ring out joyfully. In the test I proposed, every hand would shoot up. And just when you think you’ve heard everything the musicians can do — and loved every bit of it — the final crescendo, in the overture’s coda, is the loudest, most joyful explosion of all. The scales shooting downward right after that have to be heard to be believed. They’re not notes on a page. They’re a pure surge of adrenaline, just what we need to bring the overture to a close. 

This is what I mean by a vivid performance.


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    I almost have to disagree, Greg. Vivid seems such an understatement regarding this performance. It had me jumping out of my seat…

    • says

      I read your comment with a huge smile, Brian. This is one of my favorite performances ever. And, something I might have said in my post: It comes from a two-CD set of excerpts from every Met Opera broadcast in 1940. So it gives an overview, I’d think, of what performances were like back then. And, throughout, with almost no exceptions, the standards of playing and singing were amazingly high. Especially in vivid commitment! Panizza, the “routine” house conductor, also has an Otello performance, which, to judge from the excerpt on the CD, was searing. With, once more, the orchestra playing as if the musicians thought of themselves as actors on a theatrical stage.

      Of course, we can guess that whoever put this together chose the best moments, but it’s hard to believe — in the case, for instance, of the Otello — that the moments not chosen were entirely unremarkable. The two-CD set makes a good anecdotal case for the idea that performances back then were, on the average, more vivid than what we normally hear now.

  2. says

    I agree with a lot of what you say – certainly over-refinement is an issue (partly caused by music critics who mercilessly bash performers who dare to play in an unrefined way) – but I think this also has to do with the frameworks people unconsciously erect when they listen. Since I teach music appreciation classes, I encounter again and again the notion that anything that “sounds classical” (in the broadest possible sense of “classical,” including Gregorian Chant and Shostakovich) is often described as mellow and pleasing and civilized.

    I conducted a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore last year and was stunned to read the following in a student’s write-up: “The show started out with some very peaceful music by the Orchestra which was very relaxing to listen to…” Though there is one short passage in which an oboe plays a lyrical melody, the overture is mostly big, brash sounding with lots of cymbals and bass drum. (I was constantly asking for more of both in rehearsals!) And, as a small college pick-up band, let me just say that we were not the most refined-sounding group, and yet the student heard this music as basically “peaceful” and “relaxing.” I’m convinced it has less to do with decibels than it does with assumptions about what an orchestra is. Even more experienced listeners will hear an orchestra and immediately attach a certain civility to what they’re hearing, whether it’s really there or not.

    I’m also intrigued how when “This American Life” plays something classical, they often will feature a funky instrumentation such as a Bach invention played on marimba – and I have to admit that to my ears, the music suddenly sounds much hipper and “This American Life”-y than it would if played on harpsichord (which, objectively speaking, is a pretty funky sounding instrument, but people more often hear its “oldness” as opposed to its “funkiness.”) So, the people not raising their hands at the loud parts might simply be lulling themselves based on their own assumptions.

    Even when I play really blaring, dissonant Shostakovich for the class, you can tell that many can’t hear through the veil of “this is fussy classical music” to its badassery.

    As for the Mozart, it is exciting, although I think the old-sounding audio (which in our current classical culture has the effect of sounding new and exciting because it’s different), the coughing, and the generally less refined sound have as much to do with that as decibels. I’ll bet if you got an average modern youth orchestra to play this piece a little faster than is comfortable for them and then added an Instagram-like filter to make it sound like a 1940’s radio broadcast, it would sound a lot like this.

    • says

      Michael, maybe you could conduct your orchestra in the Figaro overture, faster than they comfortably can play it, just as you say. And then use audio software to antique the sound (easily done). And then see how it compares to the Panizza performance.

      There is, though, another way to perform the experiment. Compare other performances from the period, and see if all of them seem similarly amped up. I don’t find that’s the case at all. They may have other distinctive virtues. For instance, the Bruno Walter/Joseph Szigeti recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto is notable for the number of tempo changes in the first orchestral tutti. Those can’t be artifacts of recording. The dynamics, though, aren’t notable.

      That Fielder performance of the Pinafore overture you linked to — sounds really tame to me! I hear the brass and percussion, but not the way I’d expected to, from your description.

      I think one reason classical music sounds so relaxing to people outside the classical world is that, by comparison, it really is played that way, most of the time, even in performances that people steeped in classical music find exciting. This is very much a cultural difference, but it’s not the result — or not only the result — of pre-existing views of classical music. Instead, it’s just as strongly (or maybe almost entirely) the result of real differences between the thrust of classical music, in current performances, and rock (plus all its associated and derived styles — R&B, hiphop, dance music, whatever).

      Not everyone in the classical world may be able to hear this. I remember hearing Jordi Savall play, with prominent percussion. My companion that evening was someone with extensive professional credentials as a Baroque violinist. She thought the percussion was wildly exciting. I thought it was sleepy. And I kept saying, “But if you’d spent years, as I have, getting rock & roll in your blood, you’d see that this percussion just doesn’t measure up.” In pure percussionness, I mean. I’m not talking about other musical qualities.

      And one night at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York, I heard parts of L’histoire played by new music specialists who knew rock rhythms. The piece — not well played in every other respect — came to life rhythmically in a way I’d never heard before.

      So, just maybe, Michael, with the best will in the world, you’re feeling something in classical performances, including your own (and maybe the Fiedler one you linked to on YouTube) that people used to current pop wouldn’t feel. Not because they have preexisting notions of classical music, or because they don’t know how to listen, but because, in the music they know, rhythm, verve, and sonority are much more strongly projected. So their perception of classical music may not be wrong!

      Do you have a recording of your own Pinafore overture? i’d love to hear it.

    • says

      You are really on to something. I nearly throttled a colleague a few years back when he said the last movement of Mozart’s turbulent g minor symphony was “pleasant’ or something along those lines. The sad thing is that this fellow is a highly educated, sophisticated professional (an architect). How did this happen?

  3. Sixtus Beckmesser says

    I loved this performance! Panizza really knows what “works” in a theatrical context: I get a sense that he applies his experience with Verdi to bear on Mozart. Another way of making your point about the importance of dynamic contrasts would be to encourage instrumentalists to think more in terms of opera, where everything is bigger than life.

  4. Hana Writer says

    I came across this blog by accident, and was truly amazed. Has classical music-making in the U.S. come down to a music critic trying to give musicians instructions in how to play properly?

    First of all, the instructions are incredibly crude and banale. The “loudness” experiment belongs in year 2 of a Suzuki class. A professional performer should have that kind of thing down pat or find another job.

    Surely you jest when you propose that “loud and soft, fast and slow” will help audiences who do not know what the sonata form is enjoy the music more.

    The “climax” in ther exposition of the Eroica: How are you supposed to “play” to illustrate something to an audience? Nice words from you, but unless you’re talking about mediocre semi-professional or amateur orchestas in the boonies, I think most orchestra musicians would be insulted by your implication that they don’t play it that way now. What more are they supposed to do? Stomp their feet? Bang on a can? Hold up a sign saying “CLIMAX!”?

    Next there is the overture to the Marriage of Figaro, recorded live in 1940 from a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast conducted by Ettore Panizza. The quality of the musicianship is above average for the era, no doubt about that. While some of the tempi and dynamics are nicely differentiated, at other times the orchestra stumbles over itself and careens on the verge of going out of control. That’s not good musicianship. I think I’ve heard 10 different modern recordings of this overture which are certainly better than the linked one. Try Karajan’s or Rene Jacobs’ versions.

    What Brahms describes sounds familiar to anyone who has ever premiered a piece of music and done repeat performances of it. It is not some great, revelatory document that the you propose it to be. When you premiere a piece and play it before an audience the very first time, you tend to “go conservative” with it. I.e., you follow the score closely and don’t take many liberties with the music. With repeat performances, you discover that there are places you can treat more freely – speed up transitions, play sections a tad slower or faster, use a more improvisational style. That’s when the piece begins to come alive and when the composer’s birthing has finally ended; from this point on, the composer’s “help” interpreting his/her intentions, though useful initially to the interpreter, is to be avoided lest the piece become mere copies of itself. Brahms, of course, realized this being a good musician, and said as much in his letter. No great revelation there.

    I don’t know which cave the author has been hiding in over the last decade, but the “excitement” and “contrasts” he craves from performances are out there by the hundreds. Fabio Biondi’s recording of Vivaldi’s 4 seasons is an obvious example. It might be argued that recordings don’t count in this discussion about how to make music come “alive.” for live audiences. Very well, proceed to YouTube, then, and listen to L’Arpeggiata’s and Jaroussky’s wonderfully jazzed up peformance of Monteverdi’s “Ohime ch’io cado” from Ambronnay. It drove the haute bourgeoisie of France wild. Or try watching Bibers “battalia” led by Spinosi in a video from 2000. There are plently of examples of exciting performances of post-baroque music too, but very few of them involve symphony orchestras.

    Therein lies the problem of the modern symphony. While classical and romantic chamber pieces with 2-8 players can be performed with great flexibility, delicacy and drama – as many recordings and videos attest – this is but rarely achieved by symphony orchestras. They’re simply too unwieldy, and the musicians only take responsibility for their own part, not for the whole. They should do so to a far greater degree if you want more “alive” performances. No musician fears anything, certainly no conductor, as much as criticism from his or her colleagues. Where that is expressed freely but comradely in a body with a superlative esprit de corps, outstanding musicianship from all ensues. Great orchestras of the past – no names mentioned – knew this. Today, union rules have all but killed off this motivator to “be alive” and part of a magnificent whole in most symphony orchestras. This is the crux of the matter that you should delve upon, not dynamics or tempo.

    There are a few conductors today, far fewer than in the past, who can infuse an orchestra with the same desire for perfection as collegial criticism can. They are rightfully revered. Among the very best of these Simon Rattle must surely be mentioned first. Dudamel sometimes puts in great, spirited performances, and he will no doubt perform many more with added maturity. Otherwise, it’s hard to mention a lot of other names, regardless of fame and reputation. Most are merely glorified, overpaid metronomes who put on decent performances because the level of musicianship and technical accomplishment in major orchestras today is something Ettore Panizza could only dream about. If you’re lucky/good enough to get one of these orchestras as a conductor, your reputation is provided for you. Such conductors and orchestra musicians are not likely to benefit greatly from you current post.

    • says


      I certainly respect your passion. And I’d love, if such a thing were ever possible, to sit down with you and talk about all this. Preferably with recordings at hand, so we could get tangible ideas of what we’re both talking about.

      There’s one thing about your comment, though, that makes me sad. It’s something I see more often than I’d like to. You strongly disagree with me, which is terrific. But that leads you to assume I couldn’t possibly know anything about the subjects I discuss. “I don’t know which cave the author has been hiding in over the last decade,” etc.

      So what made you wonder about what cave I might be in? It’s my ignorance, as you see it, of exciting current early music performances. But didn’t I say, at the end of my post, that historically-informed performances were often exceptions to what I’d been wwriting? I didn’t cite examples, but Fabio Biondi would certainly be one, as would the Concerto Italiano performances of the Brandenburgs I raved about here recently.

      I think — especially in discussions of issues we’re all passionate about — that we might resist any temptation to make global statements about the people we disagree with. And, rather important, we also might read them or listen to them with more care than we sometimes do. This applies to me, by the way, just as much as to anyone else.

    • says

      Hi, Ramesh,

      I wouldn’t say the Ninth Symphony is too loud. The third movement, for instance, is fairly soft, from beginning to end. I love Beethoven. One of the deep treasures of classical music. An artist of great, powerful humanity.

      Anyone else care to comment?

  5. says

    While driving yesterday, it occurred to me that one advantage (there are many) that classical music has over a great deal of the music that people listen to today (mostly in their cars!) is dynamic contrast—intelligent dynamic contrast that serves one of the most fundamental, and potentially elevating, aspects of a piece (and one of the most difficult to hear, particularly for a new listener). The enormous difference between LOUD and silent is one of the biggest differences between listening casually (e.g. in your car or in a bar or while you are cooking dinner) to most music available today, and listening in a concert of classical music. I guess you are arguing, “let’s go for it.” I agree.

  6. Hana Writer says

    You’re quite right Greg. My apologies for going too far in my critical verbiage.

    • says

      Bless you, Hana. And thanks. Now I’d even more like to meet you sometime, and talk face to face. There’s nothing like a good disagreement to educate both parties. I don’t have plans to be in the Czech Republic, but I’ll let you know if I ever get there. And if you’re ever in New York or Washington, let me know!

  7. says

    I agree there’s likely a problem with classical recordings as you describe the volume, Greg, but not necessarily in performance. Most radio stations chop off the loud and soft extremes when broadcasting orchestral CDs, so that most everything comes across as mezzo-forte. If they didn’t do this, listeners would have to be constantly adjusting the volume in their cars. Otherwise, conversations aren’t possible and it’s either too loud to be comfortable or too soft to be heard. That’s even a problem with some recordings when heard at home from your computer or CD players.

    But the dynamic contrast of an orchestra is what I’ve found new listeners comment on *first* at orchestra concerts; that, and the length of a movement. They’re surprised that so much loud and soft and up and down and happy and sad can be found in the space of a 20-minute movement. One woman who’s an active roller-derby enthusiast was amazed by how loud and how soft a Bruckner symphony was. Even the craziest Dirty Projectors song doesn’t swing around that wildly. The album will, but not in the space of a song. Other orchestras might not play Bruckner this way, so your mileage may vary, but it’s certainly possible that first timers come away amazed by the contrasts they’ve heard, and not feeling as if something is missing. My favorite comment on this came from a dancer friend who, at the end of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, said, “That’s…big. Big music. BIG.”

  8. says

    It’s not just exaggerating the indicated dynamic contrasts that make classical powerful and meaningful. These are the larger rainbows, the larger shapes that bring each movement to a climax of some kind. But for the music to be truly vivid, we should deliberately shape each phrase so that one leads to the next heightening either a sense of inevitability or surprise. Phrasing is the TWIST of thematic music. It can totally change the meaning of the same notes. Phrasing is most often subtle changes of volume just outside the current dynamic and intensity of vibrato: tension and release to the Nth degree.
    The question then becomes WHOSE phrasing. In an orchestra the conductor should clearly indicate subtle changes of intensity. Quite often, they don’t and we must rely on section leaders, concertmasters or inspired leaders within the section. In chamber music, it falls on all of us to unify the phrasing… leaning on the primary and secondary harmonic or rhythmic peaks of the phrase. This not only makes the music accessible (more understandable, vivid) but quite sexy too with climaxes in each musical sentence.

  9. says

    Thank you for accurately characterizing the problem with many classical music performances as a lack of “vividness”. My favorite example is the first round of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in 2009; I went on purpose to the first round to hear all 30 contestants before the judges cut their number to 12. While there were isolated moments of effective and expressive playing, the overwhelming impression was one of sameness. But as for a fix I really doubt whether more contrast between piano and forte or more pronounced climaxes would have helped. Said another way, I don’t think “vividness” is a quality that can be added to enliven an otherwise uninspired performance. The pianists I heard were plenty capable of thundering and whispering – there was a lot of Liszt – but true musical imagination comes from within. I’ve written about mediocre performances on my blog ( as something that just simply comes with the territory. You might not agree since you are trying to find ways to attract a new audience. You’ve given me something to think about.

    • says

      Hi, Philip,

      Thanks so much for this. And, as I said in response to another comment, I’m sorry my vacation schedule leads me to post your thoughts with such delay.

      Fascinating, your thought that mediocre performances go with the territory. I think that might be true in two ways. First, the simple statistical fact of the Bell Curve. Most things fall in the middle of whatever spectrum they’re on, not at the ends (which, for classical performances, would be really bad at one end, and spellbinding — to use a word from your blog post — at the other).

      But then there are structural factors that lead to routine, having to do with so many things: playing the same pieces over and over, orchestral culture, a fear of doing anything personal or extreme in performances (which for most classical musicians is instilled in music school), and, as I said in response to another comment, the design and ambience of concert halls, as Christopher Small so pointedly described:

      As for vividness being far more than loud and soft, I completely agree. My point in stressing dynamic contrasts was that this is something easily verifiable. They’re in the score, but don’t come across clearly in most performances.

      And about attracting a new audience — I’d hope that classical musicians will reawaken their passion for music, in part by connecting more with their audience. Their attention, as is just about visible in so many performances, goes inward. Refocus it outward, and performances — in spite of the Bell Curve — might ignite. I can offer my several years’ experience in the pop world. Bands certainly fell into a Bell Curve, with most being fairly routine, overall. But one thing they did have was a vivid connection with their audience, and often vivid performances. I can’t think of many — if any — times that I went to a show and saw a band that wasn’t trying as hard as it could.

  10. thad says

    This is a really good post, Greg, and gets closer the heart of to what you’ve been writing about all this time than anything you’ve published in quite awhile.

    A couple of notes on other commenters: Michael touches on something I’ve long believed, that for a younger audience, raised on music with a prominent and persistent bass & percussion track, any music lacking same will sound ‘peaceful’, ‘relaxing’ or – my favorite – ‘mellow’. I once had a roomate react to my Solti/Chicago Dvorak New World Symphony recording played at earsplitting volume by saying ‘You and your mellow music’ (and, no, it wasn’t the Largo, but rather the first movement).

    Brings to mind an inverview I read in the old Ovation magazine with Zubin Mehta. Said interview was conducted at Lutece, the elegant classic French restauarant in Manhattan. As the food was served, the conductor produced a small envelope of chiles and spices from his suit pocket and proceeded to cover the fare with same. If you’ve been raised on lamb vindaloo, the pleasures of fresh sole meuniere might be lost on you!

    Most of your post was lost on Hana Writer, Greg, but she does touch on an issue you sometimes dance around but never confront head-on: Unions.

    Is it possible for an orchestra of tenured, salaried players, playing Mahler tonight, Pops next week, in the pit at the ballet the week after that, and back around for a Baroque Series gig two days later to play all this music with the sort of vividness you describe? Can the music be vivid in a huge 2500-seat space of good but not great acoustics, so constructed owing to the economic realities of operating a large, lavishly compensated union orchestra?

    Of all other professions, modern orchestra musicians remind me most of NEA or ATF schoolteachers. Learned, accomplished professionals, most enter with the highest ideals, but soon have those beaten out of them by routine, bureaucracy and lack of autonomy on the individual level. Put a history book in my hand, I’m a history teacher. Tomorrow, armed with an algebra textbook, I’m a math teacher.

    The ability of a modern professional orchestra to deliver a solid performance of a symphonic mainstay with little or no rehearsal is nothing less than a miracle. It is this very same professionalism, however, this I-play-whatever-is-on-the-stand-in-front-of-me music making, that can come across as inauthentic and bland, especially to younger audiences.

    As an aside, listen to Ivan Fischer’s interview with Norman Lebrecht on BBC3. In the last 12 minutes he astutely gets to the heart of the problem with American orchestras.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Thad. Sorry I had to delay approving this till I got back from vacation. (What kind of vacation would it have been, if I checked blog comments every day?)

      I did confront ISCOM directly, when I critiqued its president’s wishful-thinking speech (or, better, totally in denial speech) about the health of classical music. I’d think unions were one aspect of the large problem you so eloquently summarize. Just another way in which routine becomes part of the structure of orchestral life, and priorities are distorted. Though maybe it’s not a distorted priority to be concerned about the quality of your life — your pay, etc — more than the freshness of your playing. Anyone with kids and a mortgage can understand that.

      But quality of life has larger dimensions, too, and I don’t think anyone claims that orchestral musicians in the US score very highly on the larger life-quality measures.

      The design of concert halls plays a part, too. See Christopher Small’s evocation of how problematic they are, in an excerpt from his book Musicking which I’ve assigned now and then to my students, and put on line: