Thursday, March 15, 2012

Professionals and Amateurs

I'm of two minds about professional performances versus amateur ones. Each has their characteristic strengths and weaknesses. A professional can be relied upon to be consistent and thorough with an minimum of missed notes and misjudgments. An amateur can be relied upon to be engaged and expressive in a personal way. But a professional can sometimes be dull, going through the motions without any real sense of personal engagement and sometimes play repertoire that has been chosen simply for career or marketing reasons. An amateur can deliver a weak performance technically and be clumsy musically or interpretively inappropriate.

What I like most of all is an interesting performance, one that surprises or enlightens. Many professional ones I don't find very interesting. I have spent many years listening to students perform and perhaps this is why I enjoy hearing someone making a more or less successful attempt to play a piece of music despite some obvious limitations. Let's see if we can find some examples. Here is a very professional, very career-oriented, young guitarist named Milos Karadaglic playing the Spanish Romance on television. The performance starts at around 3:40 if you want to skip the interview.

Here is another performance. You might say, no way this is an amateur, and indeed, he is a professional guitar teacher and performer. However, he is not a touring virtuoso, so I hope he will forgive me! This is a lovely performance and shows a real delicacy especially with regard to the dynamics. Nice use of harmonics for the transitions.

Here is another kind of performance, one that shows the problems that can befall an amateur player.

There's something very odd about that rhythm, isn't there? It has a real Cuban sound! What he is doing is leaving out the last note of the triplet on the third beat of the measure so we get a 123 123 12 pattern. Then he adds a little gratuitous vamping. There are a couple of wrong notes in the melody as well.

I think we might see the same kinds of differences with pianists as well. Here is an excellent performance of the first prelude, in C major, from the Well-Tempered Clavier by J. S. Bach. The player is Friedrich Gulda:

Here is an amateur, playing the piece through at home. I think there is a wrong note around 1:54. But I enjoyed listening to this because there was a slight sense of surprise at each new harmony. The problem with a very seasoned professional like Gulda is that he knows the piece so well, there are no surprises.

One of the great Bach players is Glenn Gould. Here he is with the same piece:

There is a sense of exploration and savoring about that performance. How about this one?

That is more the kind of professional performance that I often find dull. It is perhaps too smooth and perfect with no sense of exploring a kaleidoscope of harmonies. Now here is a very interesting amateur performance:

Interestingly 'crunchy' in places and with some unpredictable ritards. The problem with professional performers is that they can be so consistent that their musical gestures become predictable and therefore dull. Amateurs can often surprise you. But of course, they can be often inaccurate and make the wrong musical choices.

So, as I say, I am of two minds about professional versus amateur performers...


Nathan Shirley said...

Hmm. I certainly agree with you in theory. Many, maybe even most professional classical performers give highly polished, yet lifeless performances. And there are a lot of amateurs out there that can play truly inspired (if sloppy) performances. And in the end, it's the music that counts. But I'd also say many students suffer from the worst of both worlds, sloppy AND uninspired, but that's another story. Lots of great students out there too to be fair.

Gould didn't have much interest in pieces like this C Major Prelude, so he often took extra liberties, trying to add interest that he believed didn't exist. I happen to really like what he did with it, but I also really like Grimaud's take on it (very different). Really her's isn't typical at all, listen to how she builds it up towards the end, and then the last chord suddenly drops way down in volume. Not that it's especially adventurous or anything, but she captures the sublimity of it, which in its simplicity sets the stage for a monumental work.

The Gulda version also has it's creativity, though for me I'm not as fond of it (I do generally love his Bach however). At about 1:20, or 1:30 he starts hammering away at the base tone, which becomes a bit of a pedal tone for a while... I just don't think it works well over-emphasizing it this way, interesting as it may be.

I guess I find it funny to choose Gulda, Gould, and Grimaud... 3 professionals that I'd call atypical (one reason I like them!).

The guitar example is good.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the comments, Nathan. As a guitarist, I'm much more competent to pick out examples using that instrument than ones using your instrument, the piano! Who would you nominate as a good example of a careerist professional pianist?

Nathan Shirley said...

I don't want to names names, but I've heard a lot of touring professionals without big names who I'd put into your 'careerist' category. One out of maybe ten of these types might actually have something to say musically.

I think what it comes down to is most professionals in ANY field (medicine, law, etc) aren't passionate about what they do. Especially after the routine of the job sets in. So they're second rate, not interested in digging deeper, not caring about self improvement. They think, "I've completed school, I've got my career, that's that."

Amateurs play music because they are passionate about it, the best professionals do too (and usually have more talent and better technique).

But there are also some who try too hard to be novel, without sincerity... again the music suffers.

Even without novel interpretation, if there is sincere passion for the music (and adequate technique) the music will be great.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you summed it up pretty well. This post was probably inspired by a concert I was at not too long ago that I found unsatisfying. He was a good player, excellent technique, musically solid, good sound, good expression--everything! So what was wrong? Without getting into minutia, it was just that none of it seemed to really matter.

Nathan Shirley said...

And SO many orchestra members suffer from this problem; indifference towards what they are playing. I think half the job of a good conductor is to inspire the musicians so they don't fall into complacency.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm sure this is the case with some. But orchestral players have a special set of circumstances. For one thing, they play a couple of concerts every week during the season. This is a couple of hours of repertoire they have to learn, some of which might be unfamiliar. They also didn't choose the repertoire, the music director did. So they have a different relationship with the music than, say, a touring soloist who focuses on a smaller set of repertoire most of which he or she probably chose. The orchestral player is a bit like a highly-skilled blue collar job.

But most players most of the time probably are not indifferent to the music, at least, not in my experience. They might be a little turned off by the conductor; that's normal! But I have had the experience many times of orchestral players being very responsive and enthusiastic if you just give them a chance! I'm talking about working with an orchestra as a soloist. I've done the Concierto Aranjuez a number of times with different orchestras as well as Villa-Lobos, Vivaldi, etc.

Nathan Shirley said...

Good point. I suppose the orchestral musicians indifference (perhaps too harsh a word) is more often than not due to the conductor's lack of inspiration.

Here in the southeastern US, there is an abundance of uninspired orchestral playing. Hardly any worth paying to hear. Although most arts suffer in this corner of the world!