Monday, November 13, 2006


Much has been talked and written about the downward spiraling of ‘classical’ music. While some of the alarmists have been perhaps prematurely pessimistic, there is no denying that the field is undergoing a radical change, slowly but surely, just as the Earth’s climate is warming up whether we like it or not. One reason is the lack of composers who are able to create new music which has all the needed, critical elements: memorable melodies, engaging rhythm and pleasant harmonies and sonorities. No one expects a modern piece to sound like Mozart, as we wouldn’t assume a painter produce a contemporary Rubens or Botticelli. But music has to be acceptable to our ears, not just to consist of loud meaningless sound effects. Surely, most of a concert audience likes to come and listen to old favorites, the war horses, but they don’t mean quite the same to the younger crowd. Never before has the mainstay of a concert program consisted of works created a century or two before, and the time gap is widening with every passing day.

Of course the classics will never go away, just as we won’t stop going to museums to admire paintings and sculptures of old masters. However, none of us visits the museum continuously, unless we happen to work there. My belief is that the concert scene will return to what it was several decades ago. Orchestras did not work full time, and their musicians usually did something else on the side. Recitals were far more varied than today, and it was customary to hear a soloist play a concerto with piano accompaniment. Thus there wasn’t the same need to go listen to an orchestra concert in order to hear one's favorite violin composition. Without a loud orchestra a soloist could actually play the dynamics indicated in the music. Of course, if we go back a few decades more, a recital was more like a variety show, with a singer appearing with a violinist or vice versa. A concert with orchestra could include various solo numbers for the instrumentalist featured, sometimes with piano accompaniment. Symphony and concerto movements were spread throughout the program. In my view the attacca marking between movements simply meant that nothing else should be played in between; often composers wrote their concertos so that one movement flowed to the next, thus preventing an interruption.

While concert attendance will go through a transformation, there is another form of music in which the demand will remain the same and for a reason: music composed for the church. Some of the greatest masterpieces were intended for religious surroundings. Composers had two choices: create either for the church or for the royalty. The latter could often have questionable taste and perhaps liked simple, danceable or even pompous music. A composer, no matter how gifted and accomplished, couldn’t take the chance of not pleasing his employer. With religious music the bishop or the cardinal might have had his preferences, but the Almighty didn’t ever appear in person to critique the composition. J.S. Bach was much ahead of his time and his secular music was probably not wildly popular in his day (were there violinists interested in his solo sonatas and partitas, or even capable of playing them?), but since he was obligated to compose for the church, those works certainly were heard.

These days it is common to hear a mass, passion or requiem on a concert stage, rather than in surroundings it was meant for. I have really enjoyed playing sacred music for singers and instruments more than anything since I was little, and have performed most major works in both settings. St. Matthew Passion feels almost like torture on stage, as it seems to take forever and for a long time one half of the split orchestra just sits there in front of everyone’s eyes, trying to keep still. In a church the work (if well done) is pure joy, time flies and the magnificent work is over before you would like it to end. Also, more often than not, the people conducting, singing and playing are much better aware of the meaning of the music than the ones doing the same thing on a stage in front of a concert audience. I don’t think that anyone should conduct or sing a sacred piece of music unless they thoroughly understand the meaning and symbolism of every phrase. I shall always treasure the numerous performances that I gave with the famous German Bach specialist Helmuth Rilling, who has dedicated his life to understand every little detail of the composer’s ingenuous writing. But even in his case, I preferred the works performed in churches to the concert stages. Especially dear in my memory is the splendid performance of St. Matthew for which I flew to Stuttgart to play first chair in one of the orchestras some 24 years ago. The organ loft was crowded but the performance was simply extraordinary.

Mozart’s unfinished Requiem is usually one of my least favorite compositions of its type. I have walked off the stage from a great number of performances feeling empty. A little while ago I had the opportunity to perform this work again here in Seattle, this time in a proper setting and as a part of All Soul’s liturgy at our grand St. James Cathedral. The opportunity soon became an honor and a revelation: finally the work made sense and the dedicated conductor (James Savage), soloists and marvelous chorus inspired the orchestra and created an unforgettable experience for everyone present. In spite of the dreadful weather and horrendous traffic the great cathedral was packed, with hundreds standing. That night I looked forward to the performance and afterwards went home happy, and remembering the glowing faces of ordinary people from all walks of life, I fell asleep without a worry in the world. This was hardly your typical elitist affair but music at its most sincere for everybody, and remarkably at no cost. Even an atheist would have been moved by the highly spiritual evening.