Friday, January 22, 2010

Should We Attend a Concert?

It is interesting how aficionados of Western music are eager to return to "authentic" performing practices but very few attempts have been made to recreate early programming. Yet a lot of information on early concerts exists. It is clear that more often than not they were thought of as variety shows, rather than opportunities for the well-to-do to meet and show their newest outfits and jewelry, unless the performance was for the aristocracy. When actual orchestras started to appear, their main function was to play in a pit, as some great ones, such as Vienna and our own Met orchestras, still do. They accompanied operas and operettas, the original musicals, and played other music when needed. Just like soloists who only performed works they themselves had composed, orchestral composers usually conducted their own compositions, in addition to some other material. The first non-composing conductor of any reputation didn't appear until less than 150 years ago. It is difficult to understand why they have become such a focal point and financial drain in today's scene.

The famed French violinist and pedagogue Pierre Baillot gave a lot of thought to where a violinist should stand when performing with orchestral accompaniment. He came to the conclusion that the soloist should be on stage but the orchestra in the pit, just like in an opera. Actually, it is a brilliant idea. The usual problem of musicians not hearing the soloist, and the issue of  the conductor and the virtuoso not seeing each other, are eliminated. I bet the balance would also be better. After all, this was the practice in the days of Paganini. Something else was also very different: a symphony or a concerto would be split into as many parts as there were movements. Other works such as overtures could be inserted. In addition to the violinist's and orchestra's share of the program a third element was important, most often in a form of a soprano, to keep the audience's interest alive. Later in the 1800s some composers didn't want to have their works split unnecessarily and they would write their concertos and symphonies in such a manner that nothing else could be programmed in between the movements. This is evident in such compositions as the Mendelssohn and Bruch concertos where the opening movement flows into the second one. Another trick was to write attacca after a movement. Contrary to most beliefs I'm sure that simply meant Do not program anything else here, instead of starting the next movement instantly, without a natural breath.

Our culture has totally been brainwashed to think that only orchestral music matters. What about recitals, the mainstay of classical music for so many decades? That was after all the only way citizens in smaller far-away towns could hear artists and some of the most beautiful music ever written. Sure, star-struck Americans still have a few recitals by names they recognize in their gigantic music barns, but a little violin, usually pitted against an all-too-loud Steinway, sounds rather lonely under such circumstances. And today's typical program, popularized by Isaac Stern in the 1950s, is comparable to eating a meal of four entrees and as such not tempting to most would-be listeners. During violin's golden age one regularly heard  popular concertos performed with piano accompaniment. One could actually hear the dynamics of the solo part as the composer had intended, instead of the constant forte required in today's halls. The second half of the programs consisted entirely of short virtuoso numbers and bonbons, nowadays referred to as encores. Even in a distant mining town a local venue would be packed as people would want hear their favorite songs, which they knew through scratchy 78 recordings, performed live. Every fiddler offered them and each performer did so in his/her own style. How many of today's mass-produced violinists, no matter how quick their fingers are, can claim to sound unique?

I was thinking of my own youth and early adulthood and the concerts I went to. Whenever one of my favorite violinists was coming to Finland, it was a given that I went to hear him. A recital was preferable, partially due to the repertoire, but also because it was easier to hear all the nuances of the sound, vibrato, fingerings and style. An orchestral concert was acceptable, too, as the auditoriums were small and one didn't have to strain to see and hear the soloist. Although I really wanted to leave at the intermission, I usually stayed to the end of the program, at first because I was dependent on my father's transportation and later out of respect for the seemingly hard-working orchestra musicians, many of whom I knew well. But to a young person the mandatory symphony at the end was an exercise in patience, and I was often using a stopwatch to calculate when a certain movement or the whole concert would end. Mind you, I knew most of the symphonies well as I had been playing in an orchestra since before starting elementary school, but playing that repertoire was much more fun than listening to it. Attending a concert that didn't feature a soloist would have seemed like a crazy idea. My taste wasn't limited to violinists: I also heard all the fine pianists and cellists and remember a concert that featured a famed harpist, Nicanor Zabaleta, as the soloist.

Once I started studying overseas, my performance attendance remained much the same, whether in Vienna, Paris or in this country. David Oistrakh played the Beethoven concerto during the Vienna Festival Week and had no less than eight major memory slips. I felt terrible for him but the audience loved it nevertheless, giving him a standing ovation of over 15 minutes. The same artist played a recital in Los Angeles that was incredibly boring, until the encores which all of a sudden melted everyone's hearts. Arthur Grumiaux performed the Mendelssohn concerto during an afternoon concert with the French Radio Orchestra, a live broadcast, and a man not far from me was snoring loudly through much of it. My time in Los Angeles was before Jascha Heifetz had his unsuccessful shoulder surgery and the old man was still playing magnificently, as was Gregor Piatigorsky during their week of concerts in the spring. Even then, the audience was eagerly awaiting for the second half of the Heifetz recital as the program was formulated after the old tradition and the real goodies were awaiting. This unsurpassed fiddler hated conductors and when he played a concerto, there was no podium to be seen and it was up to the concertmaster, usually Israel Baker, to make sure it all stayed together.

I refuse to believe that audiences and their preferences have changed that much. If a fraction of money donated toward an orchestra's operating costs was used for recitals or chamber music in a proper setting, music lovers would be served better. Yes, we love our stars, not because they are better than some others, but because we know their names from the media. However, a weekly series in an attractive location would give an opportunity to numerous others to show their stuff and gain fame and appreciation. After all, young people graduating from places like Curtis and Juilliard have been trained to perform such repertoire and have to play two or more recitals, not orchestral excerpts, in order to graduate. Even if one is stuck playing in an orchestra for financial reasons, I bet most of the capable ones would love an opportunity to show what they are all about. Museums and other suitable spaces, even people with big mansions and a decent piano, should open their doors to make such performances a reality.

If I'm wrong about an audience's reasons to attend a concert, have an orchestra play an entire season with no soloists. Think of all the money they would save, as in some cases their megastar will walk off with as much money as a single musician makes in a year. Better yet, see how the group sounds with a lesser-known but capable conductor. Chances are pretty much the same, and another million is saved!
Chagall: the Blue Violinist