Saturday, January 28, 2017

Musing on a Trend

I attended a concert last night in our local chamber music series--the first one I got to this season. It was the first one that looked interesting enough to be worth catching and I wanted to muse on that a bit. I'm not a typical concert-goer, of course. I usually intensely dislike the little spoken introductions that the artists are encouraged to give because they seem off-the-cuff, irrelevant and often mistaken. I really prefer it when people who are highly trained at playing their instrument, just sit down and do it. I also tend to read the program notes largely so I can complain about them. But enough about my problems!

The program last night was quite good: it began with the four Impromptus D. 899 of Franz Schubert and the second half began with the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Prokofiev. There was a prelude and fugue by Mendelssohn as well, which prompted me to ask why would anyone program that when they could play a prelude and fugue by Bach instead? The concert ended with three preludes by Rachmaninoff. The encore was the first movement of the Italian Concerto by Bach. Quite decent concert and I enjoyed hearing the Schubert and Prokofiev in a live performance.

I don't want to do a review of the concert, by a Japanese pianist born in England, but a few things are worth mentioning. First of all, she played every piece, including the encore, from the music! It occurred to me that if she were doing a graduating recital at McGill, she would likely be penalized for this and perhaps even failed. Mind you, my usual practice was to play very contemporary music and pre-Bach repertoire from the music because that kind of repertoire is so very hard to memorize. But mainstream repertoire like this I would always play from memory. I remember one voice recital I attended where the singer did not actually have to resort to reading the music until he was into the seventh or eighth encore!

The playing was certainly good enough, though I'm afraid Sokolov has spoiled me for the Schubert. The playing in this recital was largely accurate, though heavy-handed at times and lacking in, well, poetry.

The reason for this post is a long-term trend I think I am seeing: one where there is a steady, incremental decline in both the quality of the repertoire and of the performances. For example, just staying with the piano, a few years ago we had Kevin Kenner, an American pianist based in London, and, once he got used to the piano, he played an absolutely superb Chopin Ballade. Matthew Bengtson came two years in a row and played a very fine Goldberg Variations and Diabelli Variations by Bach and Beethoven respectively. His name slips my mind, but an American pianist from California came and played a fascinating program interspersing Bach preludes and fugues with classical, romantic, modern, world music and jazz.

But in recent seasons we have had nothing but hackneyed repertoire, the Moonlight Sonata over and over and over again, played with much less musicality. Going back to last night, if this performance were a graduating recital for a masters degree in piano at McGill, I doubt I would give it more than a B. And I have heard other piano recitals in the series that were frankly musically very poor.

This same phenomenon is also present to some degree in the other instrumental programs. So why is this? If you would allow me to speculate, I wonder if it does not partly stem from the fact that none of the people making the decisions about artists and repertoire have any musical training. They are aficionados and very hard-working, but I honestly don't think they really hear the difference between an outstanding performance and a merely mediocre one. And they don't seem to appreciate creative programming over generic programming. So it likely comes down to this pianist being cheaper and easier to book than the other one. So, year after hear, the quality gets lower and lower.

What would someone with solid musical training and knowledge do to improve this situation? One thing is to recognize that audiences need to be occasionally challenged and always educated, though in moderation. Good performing and programming sensitizes audiences to aesthetic quality so that they recognize the difference between sensitive playing and someone who pounds on the keyboard. It is a bit like wine-tasting: if you never have a chance to compare run-of-the-mill wines with really outstanding ones, you will not develop a taste for them.

I'm sure that there are arguments on the other side, the people making the choices might say, we review carefully the attendance at each concert and bring back the popular artists if we can afford them and so on. But classical music is not just a popularity contest. The reason we study repertoire, music history and performance practice is so that we can evaluate repertoire and performance on the basis of things more substantial than just the attendance on a given night or our first impressions.

I'm sure my readers want to weigh in on this, so let me know your thoughts in the comments.

For our envoi, let's listen to those Schubert Impromptus. This is Alfred Brendel:

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