Back in my "know-it-all" twenties, surrounded by accomplished musicians of all kinds, both at Juilliard in New York, and in my own home, and playing an instrument that did not give me what I wanted, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made listening and playing music pleasurable for me. I assumed that my feelings were universal, but time has proven that I was both young and, for the most part, wrong.
One thing that kind of stuck from my "lab" experiments was that there are people who play in a way that seems to be playing "at" an audience (no matter how small), and there are people who play "to" an audience. It kind of boils down to the relationship of a note being played to the meter of a piece. It also has a lot to do with the subtle contours of a given phrase, and its relationship to the piece as a whole, as well as the way a person responds to the acoustics of the playing environment and the responsive energy of the audience.
I believe that a good and well-prepared player is a person who presents a "finished product" to the audience. There are good players who present their finished product "at" an audience, much the same way a person can make a sales presentation "at" a captive audience, or an uninspired teacher can lecture "at" a class. I believe that a great player is a person who brings his or her own energy to the "stage," and allows that energy to interact with the energy from the audience--making every member of the audience feel a part of the performance; making every audience member feel connected to it, the composer, and to one another.
The difference is one of personality and intention, I suppose, but I don't know many musicians who want to be perceived as salesmen and saleswomen or as dull and uninvolved lecturers. There are ways of manipulating rhythm to make "playing to" an audience easier. It is similiar to the way an actor (and I use actor to mean both men and women who act) uses diction and timing to direct a phrase in a meaningful manner. A great actor manipulates rhythm in order to make the audience believe the text.
I have noticed, through practicing with a metronome and a tape recorder that rhythmic playing (playing evenly and holding notes for their full value) has, believe it or not, more potential to be connected with "to" playing than "at" playing, and truly rhythmic playing (understanding a particular note's place within the written meter or the larger meter of a piece) has the potential to go beyond accuracy and onto to the musical world that lies on the other side of precision. That's where musical freedom can begin, and that's the point where the real work for an interpretive musician begins. It is what happens on the other side of precision that is both wonderful and frightening. It is then that it is possible to take interpretive chances.
"To" playing is, for me, connected with taking interpretive chances, while "at" playing is safe. "At" playing is playing to impress, while "to" playing is playing to express. "To" playing is always involved with the music itself, while "at" playing is usually involved with the the performance. It is possible to observe "to" playing and "at" playing in solo work and in chamber music, but it is also possible to hear it in orchestral playing, particularly in solo situations. There it is the responsibility of a conductor to gesturally insist on the "to-ness" of an interpretation.
I have always wondered if anyone else has noticed this kind of thing.