Friday Quickie: Suffering from an excess of good taste?

An interesting dichotomy is often created between the technical prowess of a performance and the depth of the emotional narrative. It is commonplace that some performances are maligned as being cold and technical, while less-than-perfect performances are excused and even lauded because of a sense of greater emotional involvement.

Richard Storm, reviewing the Sarasota Music Festival for the Herald-Tribune, has one such review.

REVIEW: Sarasota Music Festival faculty artists touch the heart

Every music student has been there: Listening while a beloved teacher illustrates the way a particular composition should go, exploring the heart and soul of the piece, possibly slighting some of its technical requirements.

Hehe. Yep, those who can't -- teach. Right?

Which is more important: note-perfect execution or an exploration of the composer’s intentions?

That's a tough one. It really seems to allude a deeper philosophical question: what makes a piece of music what it is...the information in the score or the manner in which player performs it?

It's a complicated question, to be sure, which requires quite a bit of nuance in answering. However, before answering we should ask, more fundamentally, why should these two be diametrically opposed? It seems that a piece could be performed note-perfect and to the composer's intention. If not, then there would seem to a fundamental flaw, a Catch-22 of sorts, in the composition to begin with. Right?

But it's your rhetorical question, so...

No-brainer: The soul wins every time.

I'm guessing the "soul" is the composer's "intention", not the actual notes he wrote. From the point of view of the listener I can understand this feeling.

So, having attended the concert, enlighten us to the "soulful" rendering of the evening's performances.

So, while the faculty artists who performed at the Sarasota Music Festival Artist Showcase Thursday afternoon did not always achieve technical perfection, they fulfilled their roles as mentors and teachers of the fine young musicians who are training with them at the festival.

Huh? Because the faculty performed, and didn't achieve technical perfection, they were mentors and teachers?

The best example of this important distinction...

That performing all the right notes isn't important?

...was found in John Perry’s intensely engaging rendition of Robert Schumann’s moving and challenging Fantasy in C Major, an extended reaction to forced separation from his beloved Clara.

Which is why he dedicated the work to Franz Liszt? (note: link is to a pdf of the score)

And which (the infallible) wikipedia claims was composed in part as a monument to Beethoven, even quoting Beethoven in the work?

But whatever, I get it...all great composers get boiled down to one or two simple storylines: Mozart's all-consuming genius, Beethoven's deafness/savior of concerts with new music, Schumann's love of Clara/going crazy, and Brahms' love of the corn dog pizza.

figure corn dog pizza: And people say America doesn't invent anything anymore.

But we were talking about how great the interpretation of the piece was...

Perry’s performance was by no means technically perfect...

Yeah, I think you've mentioned that. If there's one thing performers love, it's having wrong notes pointed out to them.

...but it was touching in its intensity, powerful in its commitment to communication.

And this intensity and commitment to communication was enhanced by the lack of concern for right notes and technical perfection?

It's an interesting theory, but I'm going to need some convincing as to how the "heart and soul" of the piece was enhanced at the expense of the technical aspects of the piece.

Tell us more about how the performer plumbed the emotional depths of Schumann's desperation over his separation from his beloved Clara?

Yes, notes were missed,...

No, no, we get it. Ix-nay on the ong-wray otes-nay.

...there were messy and muddy moments,...

(This sure is a funny looking positive review.)

...but the final result was an appreciation of both the genius of Schumann and the influence of Perry on his students.

Please pardon me if I'm asking an obvious question, but how was this muddy, messy, technically imperfect performance an appreciation of the influence of Perry on his students?

I'm not sure we're getting anywhere, how about we check in on some of the other faculty performances.

The same evaluations...

Again, the technical and emotional battle for supremacy.

...applied to an over-cautious performance of Gioachino Rossini’s youthful “indiscretion” — his String Quartet No. 1, in an arrangement for winds, performed with great skill but very little witty spirit by Leone Buyse, flute; Franklin Cohen, clarinet; Frank Morelli, bassoon; and William Purvis, horn.

Okay, let's summarize...the Schumann had wrong notes, but was ultimately a good performance. And by contrast, the Rossini was played with "great skill" (which I can only assume means all the right notes), but wasn't spirited, and therefore not as satisfying a performance.

Hmmm...I'm beginning to see your point. This is indeed a conundrum.

Where was the mischievous wit for which Rossini was famous,...

It was probably lost in all the right notes being played...

...even at the age of 12,...

Wait, pardon the interruption -- Rossini was famous for his mischievous wit when he was 12? Famous with who -- his mom?

figure Rossini: Getting a lecture from his parents after his famous mischievousness caused him to trample Mr. Wilson's newly planted begonias.

...when he is alleged to have written this charming piece? Perhaps the performance suffered from an excess of good taste.

Just like the corn dog pizza.

That caution may also have affected the first piece on the program;...

The way they performed the Rossini may have affected the first piece? I'm assuming the "first piece on the program" was performed before the Rossini...right?

...Erno Dohnanyi’s “Aria,” performed by Buyse and Jonathan Spivey, piano, in which cautious good taste may have resulted in flute tone slightly under pitch.

Sounds like another excellent teaching moment for the kiddies. Intonation, just like accurate notes, aren't as important as the soul. Right?

Also, I have no idea what "cautious good taste" means. But it obviously is something to avoid. ...or not?

But back to our exploration of technical versus emotional. It seems what we have here, with the Dohnanyi, is a less than technically perfect performance, that was at the same time also suffering from "good taste" (e.g. not a satisfying emotional performance).

Does this suggest a flaw in our basic premise?

Hmmm...one more example maybe?

Yasha Heifetz’s clever arrangements of arias from George Gershwin’s glorious folk opera, “Porgy and Bess,” performed by Alexander Kerr, violin, and Jean Schneider, piano, was much more like the expectations of the students in the audience in its energy and swing.

Wait, I thought all these wrong notes, lack of wit, and bad intonations were what we expect when our beloved teachers perform for us? But I guess I should have assumed that when you said it had "energy and swing", that meant it was "
exploring the heart and soul of the piece, possibly slighting some of its technical requirements." However, I'm not quite sure how the example of this dichotomy was a positive learning experience for the kiddies -- I guess we're teaching them priorities?

But, perhaps your larger point stands, that technical blemishes aren't as detrimental to the success of a performance as are cautious, unspirited performances. I suppose that there is some truth to this notion when it comes to live performances. How these two facets of musical performance became inversely intertwined remains a mystery to me. But I suppose there's a logic to it, that people wished to be moved by music, not impressed by it.

And while I'm certain that the case has yet to be proven, I think there is sufficient evidence that emotional performances are the greater performances. And for that reason, I am ordering that technical perfection keep at least 500 yards from the "heart and soul" of a piece at all times.


Anonymous said...

Ha, wonderful analysis. One question: You wrote, "It really seems to allude a deeper philosophical question..."

Do you mean "elude" or "allude to"?

Gustav said...

@Anon: I meant "allude", although, now that you mention it, it really could be meant both ways. However, I meant to say "allude", as in his question indirectly references a deeper philosophical question. As opposed to "elude", which would be saying that his question is evading the deeper philosophical question, which I suppose one could argue.

Anonymous said...

The young Rossini displays wit for which he would become famous.


Good points, Gustav.


Sator Arepo said...

A few questions occur to me:

What percentage of wrong notes must one play to achieve an emotionally effective performance?

Would playing 100% wrong notes (one that the composer mistakenly "wrote down" instead of what he/she *actually* intended, as psychically intuited by these learned teacher-performers) guarantee an emotionally satisfying performance every time?

Why would a professional critic construct (or, if you prefer, propagate) a wholly false dichotomy between accuracy and interpretation?

Further, why would anyone pay perfectly good money to said writer for doing so?

AnthonyS said...

I'm pretty sure playing 100% wrong notes would render it "gibberish".

Just sayin'.

Woot memes!

Sator Arepo said...


Oh, no you didn't.