Saturday, August 13, 2011

Virtuosity and Musicality

We are inundated, as we always are, by young virtuoso classical musicians. The only difference today is that the young women are wearing micro-minis and the young men are showing off their abs--which makes them typical rising young stars in today's image-obsessed world. Just in case you were wondering, an Australian magazine has kindly assembled The Top Twelve Classical Music Pinups.

But I want to get off that topic, covered in my previous post, and talk about virtuosity and musicality. As an almost-virtuoso myself I have to beware of the dangers of criticizing players for being more virtuoso than I am! So I will try to keep that in check. In truth, I'm not jealous of Pepe Romero and Manuel Barrueco, both sublimely virtuoso players with whom I have studied. Well, just a tad! But they are very different kinds of players from one another and I am a different kind of player myself. Pepe is the kind of player that delights in technical challenges. He really can play anything and I have watched him trying out unfamiliar guitars and his technique just seems effortless. He has an extraordinary and warm tone and terrific velocity. Manuel is a precision player without peer. He has an edged, crystalline tone with clarity and exactitude. I had to laugh watching an interview with our latest guitar virtuoso, Milos, when he made the claim that he is the first to play Granados' Oriental on solo guitar. Manuel recorded it twenty-some years ago--better. I have technical limitations that probably come from starting late on the instrument (anything later than ten years old is a problem!) and from not finding a good teacher until I was into my twenties. But I have certain strengths as well. I have an intuitive grasp of the spectrum of tone-colors and dynamics and a gift for counterpoint.

Virtuosity is partly the physical command of the instrument: you can play fast scales and arpeggios and do it with good tone and in tune. It includes the ability to control dynamics both loud and soft. Musicality is knowing where and why to play loud and soft, what tempo is right, what notes to emphasize and what not. In other words, virtuosity is the ability, musicality the reason. Or in computer terms, virtuosity is like the hardware, musicality the software.

But there is another level that goes beyond both of these. To exemplify it, let me recall a concert I heard by American pianist Stephen Prutsman last season. He had a brilliant idea for a program that interleaved preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier with other music from Rameau to Debussy and, in the second half, with non-classical music from jazz to gospel. I had a gas writing program notes for it. But I mention this concert because of one piece. The concert was mostly played with a certain wayward charm and some racing tempos. But when Mr. Prutsman got to La Llorona, a simple Mexican traditional piece about a woman who lost her children, something else appeared. More than anything else in the program, this piece came alive. It was very moving in that way only music can be. During this piece I seem to recall that physically the pianist became more still. In other pieces he moved around a lot. But we, all of us, became captured by the musical beauty of this piece. It is different every time you play, of course. A concert artist can always play with a certain level of virtuosity, though it can be more or less. The same goes for musicality: we have a professional level of ability. But sometimes we are visited by the Muse and the music comes alive in a different way. Perhaps for only one piece in the program, perhaps not at all. Let me hasten to say that this was far from being the most profound piece on the program. But it inspired the player that night and so moved the audience.

What troubles me about the music scene--and I'm not sure it is any different now than it has ever been--is that in an obsession with virtuosity (honestly, fast scales are the most boring of all musical ideas) and with image (I love beautiful women in sexy dresses just like everyone else, but it does tend to distract) we somehow forget that the real reason we listen to music is for the transcendence, for the ecstasy, Greek ἔκστασις (ekstasis) meaning to stand outside yourself.

The ending? Well, yes, Bach did not finish this, the last piece in The Art of Fugue.

No comments: