January 16, 2010

Nothing to fear but self itself

Heard the one about the guest clarinetist that the NY Philharmonic refused to identify? Classical music’s impulse toward anonymity isn’t helping the art form.

Daniel Wakin’s NY Times article this week about the “mystery clarinetist” tells how Burt Hara, currently principal clarinetist at the Minnesota Orchestra (full disclosure: a client of ours), played a few concerts with the NY Philharmonic as part of an extended audition process for that orchestra’s own principal chair. Seems that music director Alan Gilbert singled Hara out for a solo bow, since the piece (Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony) features the clarinet prominently. Nothing odd about that.

But since Hara wasn’t listed on the program, there was no way for the audience to know whom they were applauding for. Wakin apparently asked the NY Philharmonic and was rebuffed: the orchestra “declined to give further details about guest principals, or even to confirm that Mr. Hara was onstage.”

Which makes the NY Phil the only secret society that holds its meetings onstage in front of 2500 people.

Except that it’s not unique. Classical music has a pervasive fondness for anonymity and a corresponding ambivalence about personality and individuality. (That’s one way to understand the stubborn persistence of black-and-white dress on classical stages, the musicians’ lack of eye contact with audience members, the blandness and stiltedness of most spoken comments from the stage, and some other elements of classical culture that progressive ensembles like eighth blackbird and commentators like Greg Sandow are trying to change.)

Wakin notes the tension in the orchestra world between the subordination of ego required to make a collection of virtuoso players sound like one expressive instrument and the “spotlight moments when they play solo lines.” But it’s hardly a fair fight; anonymity usually trumps other values, as it did this week in Hara’s case.

It wins because it’s connected to some cherished ideas about the proper role of interpretation in music-making. Most classical players today – and most of the critics who write about them – have been trained in a (historically recent) value system that places the intentions of the composer at the heart of the musical enterprise. The musician’s job is to perform the music as the composer would have imagined it. Interpretative freedom is valued as long as it is seen as serving that ideal: getting closer to the score’s essence, revealing the music in new ways.

Which also means: not revealing the musician, except to the extent that doing so is necessary to the revealing of the music. The performer is a kind of conduit, not unlike a translator at the United Nations whose job is to render the nuances of what has been said without calling much attention to himself. He is the center of attention but also strangely absent.

Hence James Levine’s frequently-stated desire to “disappear” into the music he’s conducting, so that audiences are focused not on him but on the work. Daniel Barenboim and others have said similar things.

Wakin is right to remind us that these values of anonymity and (his word) secrecy are built into orchestra’s hiring practices. Musicians usually audition behind screens and without talking, to ensure that the listeners make their judgments on purely musical grounds and without considering ethnicity, gender, or other potentially biasing factors.

But along with the possibility of ethnic prejudice, doesn’t this practice screen out personality, body language, facial expression, and other human, social attributes of the candidate? And aren’t those kinds of attributes what makes one musician better at communicating through music than another, both to his fellow musicians and to audiences?

Symphony musicians would reply that that’s why they invite finalist candidates like Hara to sit in with the orchestra for a few days: to see what it feels like to play together.

Still, with faceless auditions setting the stage (literally), we shouldn’t be surprised that orchestra administrators have trouble getting musicians to break that fourth wall and make eye contact with patrons, smile before and after playing (in other forms of music, performers often smile while playing), or speak from the stage. None of these things are unheard of, but they’re a long way from being natural in the concert hall.

Nor should we be surprised that classical audiences – especially newcomers and infrequent attenders, but some regular attenders, too – tell researchers like us that they wish they felt more connection to the musicians. In a sense, we never know whom we’re clapping for.

As some of you have commented here, there are plenty of exceptions around the field. The conventions are changing…slowly. But I think progress will be faster and broader if we look beyond specific practices to the values that shape them. That’s part of what I’m trying to do with this blog, and I'll certainly need your help.

Claudia Eisen-Flack — January 19, 2010

I agree with your assessment that this was a strange incident and did not serve the audience, the performer or the organization well.

That said, I think that maybe in comparing classical music to other forms of music (e.g. jazz, contemporary ensembles, etc.) we are making a forced comparison and defining expectations of this genre that will be very hard (but not impossible) to deliver on.

It's possible to think of classical music more like theatre than other genres of music and when viewed in this light, some of the quirkier, more irritating aspects of classical performance become slightly less so (at least to me). The role of the actor on stage is to deliver the message of the playwright to the audience with all of the understanding, interpretation and nuance he/she can. In a truly outstanding performance, the actor is both the message and the medium - it doesn't matter who the actor is. We've all seen (hopefully) theatrical performances where this has been the case. Similarly, the role of the classical musician is to convey the composer's message to the audience and it shouldn't (although it still often does) matter who the performer is.

Interestingly, many of the things that bother us about classical music (lack of eye contact with the performers, no pre-performance chatter with the audience, etc.) are also true of the theatre, but they don't seem to both us (me) as much. It's when we start comparing classical performances to jazz,for example, that we start to feel let down. But maybe that's not a good or useful comparison. What is it about theatre that allows us to forgive the inherent formality of people on stage performing a pre-determined script when the same features bother us in a classical music setting? Just a thought (or question) or two.

Peter Linett — January 19, 2010

That's a great question, Claudia. I've wondered about theater in a similar vein. Like you, I'm not bothered by that 4th-wall formality at Steppenwolf, maybe because the performance itself is (on a good night) so human and present ("in the moment," in acting language), and because we in the audience have a role to play that influences the performance in a kind of dialogue: we laugh, or cry, etc. and they feed off it...more than most classical musicians feed of their audiences' reactions.

You and I may disagree, though, on how much the performer matters in the equation. Call me postmodern, but I want to be watching the actor and the character, hearing the musician (as a person, interpreter, communicator) and the score. On the other hand, I do still get excited about certain performances where the actor does disappear into the role (the male lead in Avatar is a terrific example).

Thanks for commenting, and jump in anytime.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.