The Importance of Excellence

(or inspiration)

The Preciousness of the Live Music Experience

A soapbox moment

(cover image by Adrian Korte)

If my memory serves me correctly, my first post on this blog, back when I thought I’d listen to and leave notes about a new piece on here every day, when I posted genuinely clueless notes about big symphonic works, was on this day back in 2013. That was a Myaskovsky symphony, of all things. I won’t post another article reminiscing about what it’s been like to write about classical music for the past four years, but there is something I’ve thought about lately that can serve as a four-year anniversary post of sorts. Four years! Anyway… something I’ve been thinking about…

Let’s not waste our time in the concert hall on mediocrity and compromise. Whether it’s an ‘old standard’ that someone might be hearing for the first time, or a new work (regardless of when it was written) that needs to be discovered by audiences and given a solid chance, they should all be performed and presented with the utmost respect and passion. No one should allow for any less.

I attended a concert recently and it got me to thinking about the experience audiences expect to have in the concert hall, and/or what responsibility performers have to their audiences. I saw Bavarian State Orchestra, under Kirill Petrenko with Igor Levit. The night I attended featured Rachmaninoff’s Paganini variations on the (short) first half, followed by Mahler’s fifth symphony, and it was just superb.

The Rachmaninoff piece, as much as I love(d) the second and third concertos, just isn’t a piece that I think would ever appear on a “top 10 or 20 or 30 concertos I’d like to hear live” list if I were to make one. However, it was sublime, with superb playing from Levit and the BSO. The Mahler was also exquisite, but in a very different way than the recordings of that work that I so love. I walked away from the concert hall thinking about the (artistic) sacredness of the concert hall, that is to say, what a special place it is.

Whether you purchase hard copies or mp3s, or stream, or turn on the radio, we have so many more chances to be exposed to all sorts of music. So when we are potentially saturated with musical opportunities, when I’ve spent my workday drowning out loud coworkers with Beethoven concertos or Bruckner symphonies (and of course enjoying them), and walk into the hall that evening and hear yet more classical music, what am I hoping to get?

What I don’t want is mediocrity. There is no room for compromise in the concert hall. Matters of taste aside, if you as the music director or management of an orchestra or whoever are going to program another Dvorak 9, or Beethoven 5, or Rachmaninoff concerto, just to fill your concert hall, that choice of an old standard crowd pleaser doesn’t exempt you from the responsibility of doing a damn good job with it, perhaps even an especially good job with it. There are no shoe-ins. There should be no ‘bottle episode‘ concerts in any season for any orchestra. 

I won’t go so far as to imply there are actually orchestras, or conductors or performers, who consciously, voluntarily settle for ‘good enough,’ but when you program a piece we’ve surely all heard before, hopefully the intentions are to say something important with it, or that you adore it, not because it’s filler or easy or anything of the sort.

I’ve heard one of the world’s best orchestras play some surprisingly uninspired concerts (live), and I chalk that up to their guest conductor those nights. I’ve also heard barely mediocre orchestras make up for their (glaring) technical deficiencies with brilliant energy. So what it comes down to, I suppose, is this:

What is the concert hall meant for?

As a frequenter of concert halls, I’ll say it would take a special performance of many of the oft-heard works to wow me. That’s not being picky; it’s a matter of competition and familiarity. There’s absolutely nothing like watching a concert unfold, hearing music happen rather than just being played, being there to experience all the nuance and magic of an outstandingly crafted live reading. If I want to hear a good performance, perhaps even nearing ‘perfect’ (although that discussion isn’t for now), I can listen to a recording in the comfort of my own home.

Again, I don’t intend to accuse orchestras of being subpar. Certainly only a small handful (or two) of the world’s ensembles play at the level of the Bavarian State Orchestra (or Opera), but I recently listened to two recordings of a very unknown, largely ignored work, one by a world-famous conductor and orchestra, the other by a less famous conductor and far less famous orchestra, and I dare say I preferred the latter.

As a listener, would you rather hear yet another run-of-the-mill Tchaikovsky, or be challenged, surprised, and potentially blown away by Pettersson, Schnittke, Marttinen, Nørgård, etc.? Even the simple unfamiliarity of names of people like Alfvén, Magnard, Weinberg, Holmboe, or Bax turns some significant number of people away, even though they are superbly talented symphonists who present very few challenges to anyone accustomed to late Romantic-era music.

Like most of you who listen to classical music with any devotion, I’ve heard exquisite performances of Tchaikovsky symphonies, or Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Shostakovich, etc,. and so expectations are somewhat higher. I’m not saying don’t bother if you’re not going to do something earth-shattering, but be convincing. To have a chance like I did to hear such sublimely presented music last weekend was a joy, an insightful experience, but how often do we walk away from the concert hall just…. satisfied, or only just not disappointed?

If you want to hear Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, you can download it or stream it, hell, even the third concerto, that one-movement thing, I’ve heard it live. We as listeners can’t control the programming of our local orchestras. So what responsibility do those institutions have to our musical diets? I don’t know, but I’d be far more eager to go hear a performance of Turangalîla, or a work from Rautavaara, or Raff, or Rubbra, Rangström, hell, even Rihm or Reich, in my local concert hall than another pedestrian Prokofiev or mediocre Mozart. But that’s just me.

What it boils down to then, regardless of your programming preferences, is that it better be done well. (But there are those of us who’d like to hear some new stuff, too, and those who think they don’t might also be pleasantly surprised.)

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One thought on “The Importance of Excellence

  1. This makes an excellent case for more DVDs and Blurays of concerts, after all, mudc has only been an aural experience since the gramophone was invennted. It was am audio visual experience.

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