Among the many interesting composers, groups and musicians who “syndicate” (a fancy way of saying “republish”) their blogs through Chamber Musician Today is the estimable eighth blackbird who are currently on tour in Australia.  Through the miracle of RSS, their latest post poured in earlier this evening and it contained some thoughts that seemed worth sharing with the keen minds who frequent this URL.   Written by cellist Nicholas Photinos, the post is titled Should Hard Music Sound Hard?  It was occasioned by Nicholas on a night off having heard Alban Gerhardt playing the tricky Shostakovich first cello concerto with the Tasmanian Symphony in Melbourne.  He writes:

Old Shosti has plenty of ground to cover and places to show off, culminating in a ginormous cadenza spanning the second to third movement, which he nailed. To the wall.

And yet…standing ovation? No. A healthy applause, certainly, but no O, and barely even a hoot. Why? After it was done, I turned to Tim, who said tellingly: “I dunno, maybe the piece was too easy for him?”

It sure sounded that way—he seemed impatient, always a hair ahead of the orchestra, executing difficult passagework with barely a modicum of effort, always looking towards the next hurdle to jump. Some of the fast bits in the cadenza were faster than I’d ever heard them, and he barely seemed to be breaking a sweat. I noticed myself tuning out a little, and then asking myself why. Did it all sound too easy? Or is it that hard music sound hard?

Ok, so now here’s the money graph that requires some response:

Musically, we’re already living in a world of wonders, in that I can’t imagine any other time in history where so many people have had such a mastery of any instrument you can think of. Or, if you allow me to have a cello geek-out moment, we’re living in a time where Pablo Casals, still considered the best cellist who ever lived ever by many, would have struggled to get into an undergraduate conservatory (sorry Master P–you’re musical but too out of tune) and Prokofiev Symphony Concertante is the new Dvorak (ie 10ths are the new octaves). Even the Shostakovich concerto used to seem hard, but is now routinely learned by high school kids, and younger.

I think Nicholas has nailed it. What do you folks think?

3 thoughts on “Sometimes a Great Notion”
  1. Just on the no-standing-ovation thing, it’s very very rare for anyone to get a standing ovation in Australia for anything. Especially in Melbourne. So I wouldn’t read too much into that. (Doesn’t really change the point of the article, I agree).

  2. From my perspective, I generally agree with the above comments. I recall fellow high school mates – my betters — performing the Dvorak, Elgar, and Bloch cello concertos (and the Beethoven, Saint-Saens, and Barber violin concertos), but not the Prokofiev Symphony Concertante or the Shostakovich concertos. I wish that we had performed them. (Our high school orchestra and chorus did perform the Britten War Requiem within ten years of its premiere.) Several of those mates went on to become members of the San Francisco Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Munich Philharmonic, or leading regional orchestral conductors, or star vocal soloists (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson).

    It is the Pablo Casals comment I find a bit jarring. I think that raw musical charisma (if not simple “musicality”) still trumps note perfect technique, as witnessed by some current young (or older) conductors who are not note or baton perfect. Also, while I was never an audiophile or young connoisseur, the note perfect Jascha Heifetz never warmed my imagination (as it did some of my peers and elders) as did the less perfectly in-tune playing of Pablo Casals and Henryk Szeryng. David Oistrakh, who I do believe was always note-perfect, warmed my imagination the most. (I heard him in West Berlin and almost heard him in Vienna three months before his death). Rostropovich, in a messier way, warmed my imagination as well.

  3. I think he nailed it, too. This is true throughout music history: the Rite of Spring is now played by youth orchestras; college kids play the opening cadenzas of the Corigliano Clarinet Concerto, which Stanley Drucker (the commissioner) once called “unplayable”; Michael Gordon’s split-triplet rhythms in “Yo Shakespeare, “Trance,” and other pieces used to completely wall off his music from whole communities of performers, and now those pieces are played by 20-somethings at Banglewood with only a couple of rehearsals. I’m sure there are plenty more examples, too. Those were just the ones that came immediately to mind.

    I think one possible takeaway lesson from this is that, for performers as much as for composers, difficulty is not sufficient, in and of itself, to make a piece “work.” There has to be something else to the music, beyond virtuosity, because what’s a nearly insurmountable technical hurdle today will be private lesson-fodder for conservatory students tomorrow. And once the sheen of technical prowess has worn off, what’s left?

    Basically, it’s still possible to pull off a thrilling performance of, say, the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, which I saw played by the NY Youth Symphony (all players were under the age of 22). The soloist was, I think, 10 years old.

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