What you see and what you hear


(Photo: The Chiara String Quartet, who don’t need a music stand to know which way the score goes.)

Q: How is classical music different from all other kinds of music?

A (one of many): The audience for classical music is routinely treated to the thrilling spectacle of the musicians having their eyes glued to a sheet of paper as they play.

Of course, there are exceptions, at least in recent tradition. Vocal soloists usually go print-free in song recitals and during most guest appearances with orchestra, though it’s common for singers to use scores when performing extended oratorios (e.g., “Messiah”) and the like. And instrumental soloists, whether in recital or concerto, are expected to play by heart.

Or at least they were expected to play by heart. As New York Times classical critic Anthony Tommasini described in a recent article, this informal ban on soloists “cheating” with printed music has loosened of late, something I have noticed as well. While I don’t celebrate this new tendency as does Tommasini, neither has it really bothered me. As long as the soloist connects with the music — and with the audience — all else matters much less.

But speaking of the audience, where do they fit into this discussion? As usual for Mr. Tommasini, the audience doesn’t fit anywhere but in their seats. “What matters, or should matter,” writes the critic, “is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.”

Hey, I’m all for fine performances. I used to play fine performances all the time on the radio, and still like to present fine performances to the patrons of my chamber music series (the Miró Quartet plays Beethoven’s Razumovsky’s on Super Sunday, Feb. 7!). Nothing like a fine performance to make a music lover happy.

But isn’t there more to music than meets the ear? You bet. Always has been, and unless the presenters insist that the audience wear blindfolds, always will be. And you don’t have to be an out-and-out synesthesiast to know that in live music shows, what you see influences what you hear.

I’m trying to remember now — where did I read or hear about a study where subjects who only saw the visuals of a classical musical competition without any sound did better at predicting the winners than did other subjects who only heard but did not see? If someone could remind me, I’ll post the link. But this really did happen.

Much as many classical musicians (including some I spoke to recently and who will remain nameless) don’t want to hear it, classical music is not just music, it’s theater. I’d even go so far as to say that classical music is a form of entertainment, though I know that’s goin’ some. This applies both to unusually theatrical musicians such as pianist Lang Lang, who has become a critical bête noir for his enthusiastic stage presence, and to “serious” musicians whose restrained stage manner is more to the critics’ liking. But as musicologist Richard Taruskin opined in his article “Why Do They All Hate Horowitz,” now contained in the anthology “The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays,” even those artists renowned for their priestly communing with the music, performing in concert as if the audience didn’t exist (e.g., the great “serious” pianists Claudio Arrau and Myra Hess), were also putting on a show and, to an extent, pandering to their audiences’ expectations.

I admit that on this score (heh) and others in classicaldom, I see things with an audience-eye view. And from where I sit, classical musicians could do a lot more to make their performances visually as well as aurally engaging. No, I don’t need theatrics or fancy visuals. But that too is just me. Maybe future audiences, the audiences classical music will need to build if it is to survive, will want theatrics and fancy visuals. All the other art forms they enjoy them have them. Should classical music follow along with the times, or continue in its attempt to provide a calm, still refuge from the times? It could of course be a bit of both. But you know who will end up determining this? Not the musicians, not the presenters. It will be determined by the audience. They’re the ones with the money. And in classical music as elsewhere, money talks, buls**t walks.

Getting back to the question of score or no score, one classical sub-genre where this makes a huge difference is chamber music. Is there anything more visually engaging in instrumental classical then a string quartet practically acting their way through some great Beethoven (did I already tell you about the Miró Quartet playing Beethoven’s Razumovsky’s on Super Sunday, Feburary 7)? That may be one reason why chamber music provides me with more satisfacation then any other classical genre.

One oustanding ensemble, not uniquely but most prominently, has decided to take out the safety net and play most of its repertoire by heart. Why did the Chiara String Quartet go there? I asked their cellist Gregory Beaver:

We began playing by heart initially as a way to shake up rehearsal, but it had such a profound impact on our ability to improvise together, shape longer phrasing together, and other benefits, we decided to start playing without printed music or stands in concerts.

To be honest, we didn’t expect that the audience would care as much as we did, but the reaction has been extremely enthusiastic. Apparently, it also enhances the intensity of the connection between us and the audience a great deal. The problem with playing by heart is that it requires much more preparation to be worth the effort, so we cannot do it for every piece, particularly for collaborations, where rehearsals are always close to the concert with our guest.

The first few times playing by heart, anyone’s playing sounds worse, until the initial hump of memorization is overcome. Only then do the benefits kick in. We have to plan our preparation more carefully than before, which we love! As for the debate over whether to play with music or not, like anything abstract and politicized, we couldn’t care less. It’s about the quality of the performance only, so whatever brings that to the fore is what matters.

After I congratulated the quartet on their gutty move and offered a much-shortened version of my above audience-centric screed, Greg replied:

Well we decided to bet the bank on it, by only advertising programs by heart, so I hope our gamble pays off for everyone involved.

Me too. And though it’s easy for me to say — I’m “only” an audience member, after all — I hope more groups like the Chiara would gamble a little, or a lot, more.


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