Last week, we performed Beethoven’s 9th here. Afterwards, I was talking with two choreographers – intelligent, well-educated artists, who know a whole lot more about music than I’ll ever know about dance – who expressed how exciting it was to see so many people on the stage making music together.
I feel like I’m missing the gene that finds enormous groups of musicians amazing. I have nothing against orchestras or choruses, but the sheer size of performing forces means very little to me. In many ways, a single musician – if it’s the right musician — can wield far more power over my sensibilities.
Some people are at home with enormous forces to a degree that makes it difficult for them to express themselves otherwise – John Adams, for example, from the evidence of his output, would seem to feel uninspired by the idea of writing chamber music (somebody correct me if I’m making a presumptuous leap there). Bernard Rands (I seem to be quoting him a lot lately, by some strange coincidence) told me that he found writing for string quartet much harder than writing for orchestra, because you have so few options. I must be looking at it through a very different lens, because I see limitless possibilities in a string quartet – every nuance can be rehearsed, reconsidered and refined to a degree even the best orchestras can’t approach. It’s like the difference between sculpting with metal fibers and sculpting with chunks of granite.
For me, there is a trade-off in intimacy when writing for orchestra that I accept as part of the deal. But I can’t imagine living solely on the advantages I gain for what I’ve given up.
Make no mistake, Beethoven 9 is great stuff – I have no desire to do without it. But the late quartets and sonatas absolutely kill me. I just can’t see what is more magical about a couple hundred people following somebody with a stick than a small group of musicians feeling the push and pull of an elegant phrase as one.