A FEW REFLECTIONS AFTER HEARING TCHAIKOVSKY
Warning and apology: lengthy post…
Unfortunately, FB is behaving very poorly this morning, not allowing any photos to be added and just responding very slowly all around. I’ll try to add a couple pictures of last night’s concert later on.
Tiraje and I went to the Cincinnati Symphony last night. The CSO is one of the top ten orchestras in the country. It is really a superb orchestra. We love our own hometown Dayton Philharmonic, which is one of the finest regional orchestras in the country. But the CSO is a cut above. We have been subscribers for about 25 years, always choosing the “create your own” subscriptions—which for us has most often meant those concerts that feature piano soloists. Collectively, these concerts have been one of the highlights of Tiraje’s and my lives, and of our marriage.
My philosophy about attending any concert, of any kind of music, is to sit, if it’s possible, as close as possible. So, over the years we have heard—up-close—many concerts, sitting not more than 10 or 15 feet from the pianist and/or conductor—sometimes so close you feel you could share the piano bench with the soloist or that you’ll be inadvertently doused in the sweat of an energetically head-tossing conductor.
Last night’s concert featured the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, which I had just posted about here. I really did not remember that we would be hearing it in person when I wrote my last post. That was just coincidental. The performance was amazing. Yevgeny Sudbin (age 38) is a Russian pianist with an astonishing technique—feather-light yet clear as a bell and thunderously declamatory as the music requires—and possessing the temperament of a true poet. As might be expected from a great pianist playing a great work, the ovation was immediate and long-lasting.
We arrived early enough to take in the pre-concert talk about the music, presented by the CSO associate conductor (whose name I do not know). It was quite informative for the hundred or so people in the audience. After his talk, the hall quickly filled to capacity, about 2300 people, not an empty seat.
As I’ve said, the concert was inspiring, yet another star in the firmament of Tiraje’s and my concert experience. My mind seemed to be working in overdrive at the concert, and what follows are some of the things I was thinking about. These ruminations are in no particular order.
ORCHESTRAL STANDARDS, 2018
• Classical music concert attendance is reportedly declining at the very same time that the level of orchestral playing has never been higher. If the repertoire to be performed at a given concert seems pleasing to a potential audience—if a well-known symphony or concerto is being performed or a renowned soloist is performing—then a concert will likely be a sell-out. But generally speaking, classical concert attendance is declining. It used to be that 1 in every 7 persons had attended a classical concert in any year, now it is 1 in 12.
I’m offering this statistic not with a formula for improving, or even lamenting, the situation, just as a fact. And ironically, this is occurring at time when the playing level of orchestras—especially of young players between 20 and 35—is astonishingly high!
This situation is, like many things, a supply and demand situation. The great music conservatories relentlessly churn out (I don’t mean to use the term derogatorily) great players on all instruments every single year. The playing level of instrumentalists just ENTERING conservatories—say, at age 18—has never been higher. Students (and parents of students, particularly in Asian countries) who take music performance seriously in their childhoods and adolescence are entering their collegiate years with substantial real-world experience under their belts. The end result of this is a large “supply” of really gifted players vying for positions in orchestras all over the United States, and all over the world.
The concert experience, then, for the audience member is seldom less than wonderful. The heightened expectations Tiraje and I always have about attending the CSO has a lot to do with the quality of its personnel—the proverbial “army of generals.”
• Just to give an idea of the high level of orchestral playing, here is some statistics. These orchestras are often ranked as being the best in the world:
Royal Concertgebouw (Amsterdam)
Bavarian Radio Symphony
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Boston Symphony Orchestra
New York Philharmonic
Marinsky Theatre Orchestra
Russian National Orchestra
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Notice that among these superlative world orchestras are several American orchestras.
Among American orchestras, rankings such as this are pretty common:
National (Washington D.C.)
If you are longtime music lover, you might quibble about the order of orchestras here, or about the inclusion or exclusion of a certain orchestra in either one of these lists. Parochialism and regional favoritism are just as true in music as they are in sports. 🙂 The only point I am making is that, if you notice, Cincinnati is only seventh in the above list of American orchestras and seldom appears in any “top 25” list of world orchestras. And yet, it is an amazingly fine orchestra!
Attending orchestral concerts in 2018 is always likely to be a memorable experience.
LOSING ALL SENSE OF TIME
• Quite often, when I am at the CSO, I completely lose all sense of time while listening, which is a very pleasant phenomenon. Being swept up in beauty—of any kind, of course—plays with our temporal experience in general. “Time seems to stand still” is a cliché for good reason. And when it does, the experience itself, however long it lasts—I find it lasts only in bursts of maybe 30 seconds at a time—it is so delicious. The experience of losing all of one’s self-consciousness is like a dream you do not want to end.
Does this happen to you too?
WHO DID COMPOSERS IDEALLY WRITE FOR?
• I know that’s not actually a very good (or even understandable) paragraph heading, because what I am really wondering is whether the composer wrote his music as it would sound IN THE CONDUCTOR’S EARS—right smack in front of the orchestra, with the instruments positioned in a certain way—OR did he write for the person in the BACK OF THE HIGHEST BALCONY, hoping to reach and to move and to persuade that person?
As far as solo piano music is concerned, I wonder the same thing. Can we imagine a certain distance—in feet or meters—that composers imagined as being the ideal distance between their pianos and their intended audience? Say—I’m guessing here—50 feet away for Liszt, 40 feet for Rachmaninoff and Brahms, 30 feet for Chopin, 15 feet for Bach, etc? And of course, these guesses—as you see—are not reflective of real-world concerts at all, where audience members can be quite some distance from the stage. Were composers for piano creating music as it sounded TO THEM, AS THEY PLAYED—only feet from the piano strings—or to the person in the middle of an auditorium, far from the instrument itself?
As pianists, we learn to learn our piano music as though we are playing for an audience—that is what it is all about. I tell my students to always imagine an audience into existence, even while practicing, to permanently acclimate your mind into a “performing” mode; your dynamics—the lifeblood of any piece—will then be appropriate, etc.
But, if piano composers were writing only for themselves—creating a sound they wanted to hear just a few feet from the sounding board—well, that’s something to think about.
And as interesting as this is to think about with regard to composers for piano, it is even more interesting (for me) to think about with regard to orchestral composers. My GUESS would be that they composed an ideal work as it would sound to the CONDUCTOR, who is “living”, so to speak, in the midst of the music.
What do you think? Have I even made my question clear?
COMPOSERS FOR PIANO HAD TO BE ABLE TO PLAY THEIR OWN WORKS
• I suppose this is a no-brainer, a “duh!” But nevertheless, it is something I have to often remind myself of. The Tchaikovsky Concerto is a DIFFICULT work to play. It requires an ASTONISHINGLY good technique, not just a pretty good one, to play. It requires an AMAZING amount of endurance, a SUSTAINED focus on expressivity, a FLUIDIC blending of octaves and rapturous passagework. These works—the hundreds of masterpieces composed over, say, the past 300 years—all required composers who could actually PLAY them.
Maybe this is a “well, water is wet” realization, but it is always something I have to keep coming back to think about.
• When I am at a concert, I just cannot help thinking like a reviewer. I guess that is because, from my high school days onward, I have been immersed in “reviewerese,” reading reviews of classical recordings or classical concerts until it just became a way of thinking.
Obviously, I would have had glowing things to say about last night’s concert in a written review. But it got me to thinking, once again, about reviewers in general. Does it, for instance, take a pianist to most accurately “review” another pianist? Does it take a singer or a violinist or an oboist to write an appropriate review of those respective instrumentalists? Does simply being a music lover who has heard a lot of music qualify one to be a reviewer?
Are reviews even necessary? What purpose do they serve? I’m not playing devil’s advocate by asking that—more like, just reviewing what purpose they serve for ME. Maybe a more pertinent question is, especially in light of diminishing classical audience sizes, should “reviews” be written in an entirely different way than they currently are? Are those who read reviews of classical performances primarily interested in expositions about the music, or about the composer’s’ life, or about the performer?
I should have an alarm that goes off after I have written a certain number of words. I’ll end here, for today…. These ramblings, as you’ve come to know, are only the tip of an unwieldy iceberg. Thinking about classical music performance is always enjoyable for me, and I am guessing it is for you also.
I hope this comes out legibly. I had to fight Facebook every step of the way! Maddening….