Saturday, April 21, 2012

into the vale of contention

In the comments at the end of this SFCV review, Lisa Hirsch and I take issue with the reviewer and another commenter who oppose applause between movements of a symphony, no matter how sublime one thought the performance.

They wouldn't have known at the time of the comments that I'd been giving some consideration to the question of applause, but now all the readers of SFCV can know it, because my report on the Stanford music symposium has finally gone up, including a discussion of that very point.

This report is rather different in approach from the three daily posts I made here as it was going on. Those were my personal reactions, as their titles said, and I wasn't aiming at journalistic objectivity. (That's one reason I named few of the presenters: I wasn't intending fair reports of what they said, and it would be unjust to blame them by name for it.) In the SFCV article, however, most of the content of the first two sections is intended as a journalist's conscientious relay of the presenters' arguments. Only after the second section break do I really get into my own reactions. In fact, as the article was due the day after the conference ended (scheduling issues and editing time resulted in the publication delay), I wrote most of the third section in haste by throwing large chunks of my blogspot reports against the wall to see if they'd stick.

Here is where, after relaying Anatole Leikin's robust defense of inter-movement applause in part 1, I express my concern over it becoming obligatory and hence perfunctory. This occured to me in connection with the concert the previous evening, where Anatole and his fellow performers preceded the Reinecke trio by saying that inter-movement applause would be acceptable. Inter-movement applause dutifully followed, not that it was undeserved, but I was still bemused by Anatole, in his presentation the next day, comparing his reaction on being applauded to Sally Field's on getting an Oscar. That was a bad comparison, because Field was ridiculed for her "you really like me" speech, and the reason it was ridiculed is that she overinterpreted the polite applause she received. Still, will musicians play better if they already think they're doing great?

Editing trimmed my overlong article a fair amount, but intelligently, and I only miss two things of significance. One is that I think my original opening was a bit punchier. It began,

Can old recordings save classical music?

A small, lightly-attended conference on technical issues in historical musicology might not seem the ideal venue to address deep questions on the future of the classical music industry. Yet that was the presiding theme at Reactions to the Record III, a symposium on early recordings, musical style, and the future of performance held at the Stanford Music Department last weekend.

The other was an ultimately unanswerable extension of the point about whether modern classical performances all sound alike. It's a matter of context - I'd like to take this up later in regard to how alike Tolkien is to other authors - and I did begin my classical-listening career with an assumption that all performances were an approximation of a platonic ideal reading of the score, because that's what they were trying to be. It took me many years both to change my mind about that and to develop a secure sense of how they differed, and to be able to say that A is like this and B is like that with a feeling that I had any notion of what I was talking about.

The extension of this question is: OK, they differed more in the early days, but how much did they differ? This too is a question of context. I noted in my reactions to day 1 that the guy who played three diverse recordings of the same Schubert song and called them the same notes but three different works would be stared at in disbelief by anyone whose ears were formed by pop song cover versions. What I didn't say in my reactions posts was that I raised this question on day 3 with Jose Bowen, the guy with the survey of Rossini aria recordings. He's primarily a jazz musician, so I figured he'd have the non-classical ears to grasp the point. But when I tried to illustrate it by pointing to the first evening's chamber music, he started enthusing about how wonderful they were because they were so different.

I thought, "He doesn't get it either. He may play jazz, but he listens to classical with purely classical ears." And I gave up. The problem is this: that the range of possible performing styles in classical music, even within the broad variance of late 19th century style, is minuscule compared to that heard every day from different performers of pop songs, and that therefore, classical music isn't going to save itself by re-adopting 19th-century diversity. It's not going to impress anybody who listens to pop and who thinks of classical as uninviting and only permitting discrimination to be performed by experts. The only hope - but, fortunately, it's not a small one - is that more idiomatic performances will be better, more committed performances and thus more attractive even to the ears of non-expert listeners who can't analyze what they're being attracted to.

More on this article, and also on what's not in it, to come.

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