During a recent classical music concert, I was listening to a song recital and admit to being rather underwhelmed by the lack of passion in the performance. I know the world of art song very well. For years I coached singers and gave song recitals as a pianist. I know the repertoire back to front and inside out and for the most part, love it. So I have been wondering what it is that underwhelmed me when everything in the recital appeared on the surface to be so good.
The programme was well balanced, easy to listen to with nothing considered to be too ‘modern’ or challenging (!) and it was sung and played beautifully. It was well crafted with excellent language singing and fabulous ensemble work. There were lots of smiles from the audience, some reasonably animated applause and an encore. I also heard some well-respected musicians comment that it was some of the best singing and playing of certain songs that they had ever heard.
A week ago in the same concert hall, I heard some of the best chamber music playing that I have ever heard as part of the Oxford Chamber Music Festival. A friend, new to classical music concerts, came with me to one of them and was so blown away that she has had to re-frame her views on classical music.
There was a lot of chaos surrounding the festival – musicians forgetting which concert they were playing in, music being lost, rehearsing at the last minute and ‘winging it’ in the concert. The programmes were dynamic and varied, the musicians were some of the best soloists and chamber musicians in Europe, and the reason that they could wing it so successfully was because they were at the top of their game. The edginess of not rehearsing enough, for them worked in their favour, giving a feeling of improvisation, an aliveness and dynamism to their performances.
And this is the point! It was that edgy, dynamic, aliveness I was missing in the Lieder concert. I realised I wanted real honesty, I wanted to feel that the performer was putting their heart and soul on the line, that they were grabbing me, pulling me into their performance and shaking up my world. I was longing to inject this somehow into the Lieder concert. I wanted the audience to get their heads out of the concert programmes, needed, unfortunately, in order to understand the various different languages in the songs.
I wanted the brilliant, successful pianist, to take his foot off the soft pedal, to dare to cut through the texture of the voice, to meet her head on and not just play ‘under’ her singing. I wanted him to get into his body, feel it, dance it, and allow his intellect to take less of a starring role; I wanted him to dare to be less perfect, or rather, trust his incredible ability to get it all right, and let the music speak through that and take him over.
I wanted the singer to sing from her heart, her passions, her life experience, and to be more than just impressive in her ability to sing; I wanted her to let rip and really ‘go there;’ I wanted them both to be a real duo so that the pianist wasn’t ‘accompanying’ the singer, taking a semi-apologetic bow at the end of the concert but really playing chamber music with the singer.
I was clearly in the minority with my thoughts and feelings. When I tentatively voiced my opinions at the end of the concert, I was questioned and then categorically shouted down. The audience was more than satisfied with what they’d heard. I realise now that this type of performance would have completely satisfied me some years ago, and maybe that’s it. It’s clearly me that has changed. Good, perfect, beautifully crafted, safe concerts just don’t do it for me any more. I still value the courage, commitment, work, focus and ability that is required from good, professional musicians just to get up and perform, but what frustrates me is that I know there can be more. When these wonderful musicians take that extra step and really open themselves up to communicate and express themselves, it can have a profound impact on both them and their audience: it can shake up their worlds and light up their lives.
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