Saturday, May 14, 2005

Circus acts

My generation of performing artists was taught to stand still while playing. Any unnecessary movement was considered a no-no. You were there for the music, not for a freak show. Everyone should look at old videos, now readily available, of the great masters of the past. Heifets and Milstein were like statues, pianists looked noble, with the exception of Gould, whose constant movements might have been caused by Asperger’s, which he is rumored to have had. Years later, Ann-Sophie Mutter plays the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Karajan. Even her lips don’t move; the performance is a masterful example of self control.

This hardly is the case with most younger soloists of today. Playing has become an act, something more suited for television; or a pop concert rather than a classical one. Not only are the outfits revealing, to say the least, on young ladies; they have to give an image of being a sex symbol. Or when was the last time you saw a younger man just wearing traditional tails? Clothes aside, the gimmicks have become more important than the music itself. One gets seasick watching a young instrumentalist from a close distance. I remember accompanying a young violinist and all of a sudden she had managed to stomp her way to the other side of the podium. I didn’t know the stage could function as a race track. Some other lady tried to entertain her audience by wiping her underarms in the middle of her solo. It worked at least with a local critic who dedicated a chapter for this incredibly wonderful behavior. Did this really turn her into a great artist or make up for the notes she missed? What about a pianist who chooses to sit a few inches from the floor and play like he’s riding a certain type of a motorcycle? Do pianists perhaps have their own Hells’ Angels chapter? How many pianists today just sit there and make beautiful music? In most cases they attack the keyboard like they are taking part in Saturday’s night’s RAW, leaping off the chair and banging on the keys as if to punish and want to break them and the strings of the piano.

There are exceptions: Hilary Hahn looks noble with her violin and plays the same way. Perhaps that is part of the reason I have so much respect for her and rate her playing so high. She also looks like a lady, not like a pop star or someone ready to work the streets. There are fortunately some others, too, probably trained by teachers, who themselves were brought up in the old tradition, where music was music, and circus meant what the name indicates.