Wednesday, March 02, 2011

21st Century Performance Practice

Ilkka Talvi compares a photograph of the Takacs Quartet with the Joachim Quartet in his post "Then and Now," and makes a truly valid point about the way high-profile concerts have essentially "devolved":
We seem to have gone back in time, as nowadays we unfortunately enjoy our musical encounters more with our eyes than with our ears, as if concerts were intended for deaf people. Everyone should enjoy a blind person's experience: bouncing around and madly waving bows or batons obviously would be of no use.
Talvi's "time travel" refers, of course, to the extravagances and showmanship of the 19th century. Now that we are a decade into the 21st century, I'm becoming nostalgic for the 20th century of my youth. I remember (with deep fondness) the experience of going to hear concerts rather than going to see concerts. I also remember (with deep fondness) when "classical music" was not "cool" and was not "sexy." It was about substance over surface--for the most part. The "stars" were often ordinary looking, and sometimes they were downright homely, but we loved them because of the way they played.


Lisa Hirsch said...

You and Talvi are both reading a lot into two photos that are not comparable. The Joachim Quartet isn't playing, let alone in a concert. I would seriously hesitate to draw any conclusions at all about what's wrong with the Takacs photo from the Joachim photo.

Also, note Ken Woods's superb posting earlier this week about Joachim, which also might or might not be relevant, but is definitely of interest.


Wow, I was about to write almost the exact same thing as Lisa, including a reference to Woods' article!

I was also struck by this statement from Talvi: "Are such exaggerated physical motions needed for this great and heavenly music?" I don't know when that photo was taken, but the recital featured Schubert's late G Major quartet, which is full of wild and violent moments. I think the photo does a good job reminding us that Schubert is not all sweet and heavenly.

I also think it's odd to discount the importance of the visual, though emphasis on the visual can obviously go too far. But I don't see that photo of the Takács as celebrating glossy surface beauty. Rather, it captures the visceral, physical dimension of this music - true, one can feel that without seeing the players, but a newspaper as yet cannot provide audio (although online versions could), so I loved seeing that photo (I even tweeted about it the day it appeared) - it seemed to me to capture a wonderful, high energy moment.

I know all three of us treasure recordings, so of course music can communicate well in a "blind" medium, but I think watching a good string quartet interacting can add something quite substantive and meaningful to the experience.

[On the other hand, I will admit that I've been distracted by overly animated players, especially by string quartets; and, while it's javascript:void(0)true that one can always look away, that seems an unsatisfactory solution.]

Lisa Hirsch said...

I liked the photo of the Takacs for exactly the reason Michael does: you see them in full flight at an exciting moment of a live performance. It looks like they've just ended a movement or a work; none of them have their bows on the strings.

In the Joachim Quartet photo, they might be rehearsing, or it might be a posed photo. I don't play a string instrument, but they are mighty close together if they're actually going to play. Does the cellist even have room to bow without running into the violist?

Here's a photo of the Flonzaly Quartet in which they are playing. They're closer together than the Takacs but not knee-to-knee the way the Joachim members are.

Elaine Fine said...

Here's some high Takacs Drama:

I watched it first without the sound, and then was completely surprised to hear exactly what they were playing.

I don't really understand the sitting in a curved line thing! Perhaps it presents the members of the group as individuals rather than as a collective entity. I don't know if I could stand playing quartets that way. I like to have eye contact with everyone.

I much prefer listening to this kind of performance (even though it is a performance by a group of students) because there is a collective sense to it (the Scherzo begins 5 minutes into this clip).

I think that there is a huge amount of visual stimulation simply from the movements of the musicians' bows!

The Joachim Quartet is definately posed! And Joachim certainly tended, as Ken Woods so clearly points out, to be an ass.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Since the Joachim is posed, I have to take complete issue with Talvi in comparing that photo to that of the Takacs, even though he cites written accounts of how the Joachim looked in performance.

The Takacs video? They look like they're having a good time. I saw them in concert a couple of years ago; can't remember if they were in a curve, but I did not find them visually distracting, though I almost jumped out of my seat when they skipped the first-movement repeat in the Schubert Quintet. That bugged the crap out of me.

I'm trying to remember who posted years back about how American musicians are trained to keep still, while European musicians are more likely to be trained to move with the music. (MIght have been Sandow, so make of that what you will.) Two of the current Takacs lineup are Hungarian, one is English, one is American (the wonderful Geraldine Walther, whose previous gig was principal viola at SF Symphony).

Elaine Fine said...

Here's the Alban Berg Quartet playing Beethoven to counter that point about European musicians vs. American musicians. I think it is much more a generational thing. String quartets have to compete for attention these days--both the attention of the audience and the attention of the people who book concerts.

By the way, I think that Geraldine Walther is is superb violist.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm not sure what your comment about groups needing to get attention has to do with the Takacs, a justly-famed and veteran group. They were founded in 1975, only five years after the ABQ. I don't think their physical interactions have anything to do with getting work (or attention).

My guess is that how any group behaves physically on stage has to do with the individual players and how they respond to each other and the music.

Eric Edberg said...

Elaine, you wrote, "I remember (with deep fondness) the experience of going to hear concerts rather than going to see concerts." My goodness, there are still plenty of concerts with little visual stimulation. I was surprised by how little the Turtle Island Quartet, of all groups, moved in their concert featuring Hendrix arrangements last night (March 2) at Symphony Space in NY. And when I experienced almost all of the Music of Now almost 8-hour marathon there a couple weeks ago, there were few shenanigans.

What prompted me to write is that your comment made me realize what a very 20th-century notion going to a concert "to listen" is. It was only with the advent of recording that the paradigm of hearing music without seeing it being made became possible. Before then, the visual and the aural were all part of the experience (unless you hid the musicians in a pit or around the corner, of course).

I think some of us naturally move a lot, others don't. Thinking of cellists, if Janos Starker had tried to play with Yo-Yo like body language, it would have come out like the parodies he occasionally does of other cellists--unconnected and insincere. If Yo-Yo tried for the calm demeanor of Starker, I doubt he could play at all.

All that said, I find I move less as I get older and more comes out in my playing. And I like listening to concerts, too, and often do it with my eyes closed.