August 21, 2011

Classical Beat: In the quest for virtuosity, is enjoyment being left behind?

By CHRISTOPHER HYDE

A friend brought to my attention a recent article in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini titled "Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen."

Violinist Jennifer Koh performed at the opening of the Salt Bay Chamberfest last week.

Janette Beckman photo

One of the new crop of pianists featured in the article was Kiril Gerstein, who played the Liszt B-minor Piano Sonata last season at Merrill Auditorium under the auspices of Portland Ovations. Of course, Gerstein isn't exactly a wunderkind, having been born in 1979.

The subject of virtuosity has been on my mind since attending the opening of the Salt Bay Chamberfest last week, where Wilhelmina Smith and Jennifer Koh played fiendishly difficult works for solo cello and violin by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Actually, I've been thinking about virtuosity ever since attending a recital in Rochester, N.Y., many years ago with some Eastman School students, who referred to a visiting pianist as a "poet" -- a term of contempt for anyone who, in their opinion, lacked sufficient technical ability. I hope things have changed, but after reading Tommasini's article, I rather doubt it.

He claims that the great French-Swiss pianist, Alfred Cortot, couldn't get into Juilliard nowadays, which seems to me more an indictment of Juilliard than of Cortot. It is certainly easier to judge finger dexterity than musicality, which is basically indefinable.

Today's musicians do seem to be able to play difficult works at an earlier age, which is Tommasini's primary contention. Except for those who are born full-fledged, such as Mozart or Mendelssohn, this is probably a result of vastly improved pedagogy based upon anatomical and psychological realities rather than myths, hero worship and sadism, which was the norm until very recently.

It is truly encouraging that infernal machines, rigid systems and perpetual practice of exercises have been tossed out. But the principle of enjoyment still needs more emphasis, especially for the vast majority of students who will not have professional careers.

The advent of the computer, and computer games, also has something to do with precocious technique, since many children spend most of their waking hours developing hand-eye coordination. Hand-ear, not so much.

There is also a much larger pool of talent from which to choose. Witness the number of fine Asian musicians now making their debuts. It seems that China, Japan and Korea now recognize the importance of Western classical music more than those in its countries of origin.

Another thought is more sobering -- that human endeavors, from arts to empires, tend to reach their apogee just before abrupt decline or disappearance.

Tommasini believes that musicians are living up to increasing demands by composers. I don't buy it. Certainly there are composers such as Salonen, Ligeti or Alkan who push the technical envelope, but their work represents an infinitesimal percentage of concert fare. Most of the wunderkind are flogging Liszt and Chopin.

As Tolstoy asked Rachmaninoff about his music, "What good is it?" Virtuosity certainly has its place, in the ability to play great works well, leaving room for interpretation and innovation without worrying too much about clinkers.

But all too often it becomes an end in itself, an attempt to impress an audience with circus tricks. Even worse, it can make the best compositions seem lifeless and mechanical, like a piece of machine-made jewelry compared to the work of human hands. After all, you can't have fire without clinkers.

Audiences do love virtuosi, even when they're not very good. (See standing ovations at Merrill Auditorium.) Salonen has made good use of that taste for the theatrical, using spectacular demonstrations of technique to lure people into his difficult music.

Still, even this device widens the gap between professional and amateur musicians. No one would even consider playing a Salonen piece at home, although they might be working with pleasure on a Bach suite or a Haydn sonata.

But that gap is a subject for another column.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

classbeat@netscape.net

 

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