Thursday, January 07, 2010

Conductors/Musicians: The Musical Equivalent of Film Critics?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Before I had aspirations to be a film writer, I wanted to be a musician. In my younger days, I studied both the piano and the violin; years later, as I was struggling to work up the courage to go against my mother's wishes and drop accounting from my undergraduate plate, I even flirted with the idea of becoming a full-fledged conductor. I dropped that idea fairly quickly, and I don't regret doing that; I don't think I'd have the ego required to stand in front of a large group of musicians and imposing my interpretive will on them all. Once in a while, however, I do regret not working harder at either the piano or the violin—never working hard at perfecting my technique; never developing the work ethic for intense practice; and, perhaps most damagingly, never truly grasping what true artistry and musicianship is. I think I always treated the performance of both instruments as mere casual sport; it was probably no coincidence that, even six years or so into playing the violin, my teacher (one among many, actually) was still complaining that I was "too stiff" on the instrument. And it's that stiffness—stiffness that can only be borne out of mediocre technical command—that can kill the kind of expressive spontaneity that distinguishes the playing of the greatest of instrumental artists. All of this I only realized until long after I had stopped playing either instrument.

But I still maintain a certain level of fascination with classical-music performance, which is why I was fascinated by "In Praise of Infidelity," an editorial written by acclaimed pianist Byron Janis that appeared in yesterday's Wall Street Journal Leisure & Arts page. In it, he passionately argues against the literalist school of classical-music interpretation, one that prizes absolute fidelity to the letter of a score. Sometimes not even composers themselves stuck to the letter of their own scores. From Janis's editorial, two examples:
In 1960, I opened the cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and brought Aaron Copland's Piano Sonata to play. Never having performed it before, I wanted to play it for the composer first. On arriving at his home, I found him tinkering with one of its passages and said, "Mr. Copland, I notice you are playing forte and you have marked it piano in the score." He turned to me grinning mischievously and said, "Ah, but that was 10 years ago!"

Some 200 years earlier, Chopin would have made a similar remark. Only he would have said, "but that was 10 seconds ago!" Julius Seligmann, president of the Glasgow Society of Musicians, attended a recital where the composer played his new "Mazurka in B flat, Opus 7 no. 1" as an encore. According to Seligmann, it met with such great success that Chopin decided to play it again, this time with such a radically different interpretation—tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed—that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka, and it rewarded him with a prolonged, vociferous ovation. It seems he had facetiously decided to show why he had no need to republish a score—the magic of interpretation would do it for him. He would often say, "I never play the same way twice."
Janis sums up his main point this accordingly:
Thinking is creativity's worst enemy. When I first sight-read a score, everything seems so right, so natural. The notes seem to be playing themselves and the music flows. Why? Because I am not thinking. Inspiration has been my guide—the adventure of a first time. Then comes familiarization, the learning process where, until the piece is well in hand, thinking is allowed. After that, interpretation—choices must be made, but you are finally free to feel and use your creative instincts. And, at last, creation—how do I make the music sound as it did when I didn't know it?
However closely an interpretation hews to a score's details or however far it departs, Janis seems to be saying, it's how the performance of that score feels to a listener that ultimately matters. The beauty of the music being heard is its own truth, regardless of matters of local detail (matters that perhaps only music critics and/or scholars would fixate on, anyway).

I tend to be a man who values feeling in art over more literal elements, so, in theory, I'm wholly in sympathy with such an approach. Let the critics and scholars parse the fine details! Still, Janis's take on classical-music interpretation rather begs a lot of questions. Chief among them: If we allow that artists will take liberties with the letter of a score in order to get at its spirit, at what point does that latitude—especially if it's wide latitude—reveal more about the interpreter and his ego than about the composer and his intentions? At what point does a supposed pursuit of greater artistic truths simply cross the line into sheer arrogance—the belief, based on possibly sketchy historical evidence, that an interpreter knows better than the composer how a particular piece of music should go?

Take the example of the epic first movement of Gustav Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony (his second) as conducted by Otto Klemperer, in his celebrated 1963 EMI studio recording, and Leonard Bernstein, in his 1987 Deutsche Grammophon live recording. This wide-ranging, frankly episodic first movement is, at the beginning, marked "Allegro maestoso," which roughly translates to "majestically fast." Already, there is considerable room for interpretive license here; does "majestically fast" suggest a slightly slower Allegro than one might expect, or is the "maestoso" only meant to be an expressive marking? In the score, Mahler supplements the "Allegro maestoso" marking with another note: "Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck," or "With quite serious and solemn expression." He even obliges conductors with metronome markings at the beginning. All of that—and there's plenty more of this kind of detail in Mahler's score—suggests that Mahler (himself a renowned maestro) had a pretty precise idea about how he felt his piece should be performed.

Klemperer more or less takes Mahler at his word: his tempo is quite fast—indeed, it's within the metronome range Mahler specifies—and the mode of expression is indeed serious—though calling his interpretation "solemn" might be stretching it a bit. Solemnity, though, pretty much carries all before it with Bernstein's interpretation of the opening moments of this movement. He pretty much forgoes the forward movement implied by Mahler's "Allegro maestoso" marking and instead dares to take it at something more akin to an Adagio (slow). Clearly taking his cue from the fact that the movement is a reworked version of a symphonic poem Mahler wrote years earlier named "Totenfeier" ("Funeral Rites"), he interprets the music to sound exactly like what one might imagine a piece with such a nickname would sound. Where Klemperer moves Mahler's funeral march at a pretty fast clip, keeping the tragic expression relatively under wraps, Bernstein evokes a slow-coach funeral procession.

And yet, if Mahler really wanted a slow-moving dirge, wouldn't he have noted so? Considering that, does Bernstein's choice of tempo really illuminate Mahler's intentions, or is he merely imposing his own personality, drawing as much attention to himself as to the music at hand?

Of course, all of that is what my head tells me. And yet, put all preconceived notions aside, listen to the same exact notes played in such two wildly divergent ways, and I find that I always find myself pulled emotionally to Bernstein's tragically intense approach rather than Klemperer's comparatively straight-laced take. And it is ultimately Bernstein's performance, defiantly unscorebound, that moves me to feelings of spiritual transcendence cumulatively, while Klemperer's more faithful and buttoned-up response to the "Resurrection" elicits merely chilly admiration.

Heart over mind, Dionysus versus Apollo: This must be what Byron Janis means when he writes, "Thinking is creativity's worst enemy." And yet, as in all art, one cannot—indeed, must not—entirely negate the other. Could it be that a profoundly moving interpretation of a particular work is essentially a gross, elephantine distortion of Mahler's score? Is this really Mahler's "Resurrection" I've heard, or has Bernstein made it more his own?

And if it's the that inherently a negative thing? In popular music, no one seems to bat an eye when it comes to covers, especially when a singer/band covers a certain song in a way that is markedly different from more traditional interpretations. (Think of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" versus Jimi Hendrix's, as one of the more famous examples of this kind of thing.) Let me put it in a different way: What are conductors and musicians, really, other than the musical equivalents of film critics putting across their own interpretations of certain films with written words or in the form of a video essay? Each performance, to extend this line of thinking to its conclusion, is one man's interpretation, and an open-minded listener should take it as such. But, of course, what of the idea that perhaps projecting a score as clearly and faithfully as possible and allowing the music to speak for itself—in the composer's own voice, some might say—could be more insightful and revealing?
I don't have set answers to these questions, of course...but such questions fascinate me endlessly, touching in their own way on the neverending tension between one's head versus one's heart in the consideration of art. That's why I found Byron Janis's editorial a deeply compelling read, and why I wanted to share it and some of my (rough, not fully formed) thoughts with all of you.

What do you all think out there, readers? Strict musical interpretation versus a freer, more personal approach? Should a score be the be-all and end-all, or merely a starting point? And, just for fun, what are some of the most fascinating and daring interpretations of both classical and popular music you've heard?

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