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Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Since one of the mysterious side effects of the illness with which I have been contending is a loss of several pounds [to be distinguished from my deliberate and successful ten week diet last Fall], I have returned to my pre-diet routine of taking the Arts section of the NY TIMES to the Carolina Cafe, on the first floor of the condo complex in which I live, and there doing the crossword puzzle while eating a lemon poppy seed muffin and drinking decaf coffee.
The puzzle gets progressively more difficult as the week goes on, and Wednesday's puzzle is not much of a challenge, so I had time this morning to read most of the Arts section, including a review of William Christie conducting a Juilliard baroque music concert and a review of a guitar "marathon" at the great old 92nd St. Y [where Susie and I, as teenagers, would listen to the Bach Aria Group and the occasional Oscar Brand folk music concert.]
As I read the reviews, I was struck once more by how difficult it must be these days to work as a reviewer of classical music concerts.  When I was a boy, there were three transcendently great concert violinists:  Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and David Oistrakh.  [Heifetz was born in Vilna.  Milstein and Oistrakh were both born in Odessa.  All three were Jewish.  Go figure.]  Their sheer technical virtuosity was so much greater than that of any other soloists that if I heard a violinist on the radio, I immediately knew whether it was one of those three.  [Personal memory:  As a teenager, I attended a Milstein concert in Town Hall in Manhattan, sitting in the balcony.  After a stunningly brilliant performance, Milstein started to play encores, as the audience simply would not let him go.  Now, every soloist has a few encores ready, in case there is a demand for them, but Milstein ran out of encores after a while.  Finally, he started to play an incredibly virtuosic "piece" that I did not recognize at all, running up and down the E string with great abandon.  At one point, he got himself all the way up in the umpteenth position and could not figure out any graceful way to get back down, so he simply jumped back into first position.  In a moment of eclairecissement, I realized that he was just playing exercises -- in effect doing tomorrow's practicing.  The audience loved it.  Then the house lights went up and we filed out.]
But in the past thirty years or so, the level of technical virtuosity has risen so dramatically in the world of concert performers -- violinists, pianists, cellists, violists, and period instrument performers as well -- that there are literally dozens of breathtakingly accomplished soloists who regularly perform at or beyond the level achieved by Heifetz, Milstein, and Oistrakh.  What is a reviewer to do?  Honesty should require that the reviewer write a series of unqualified raves.  But readers don't want that.  They want reviewers to draw distinctions, anoint favorites, praise Itzakh Perlman over Jonathan Bell, Annie-Sophie Mutter over Hilary Hahn.  As a sometime amateur violist, I am painfully aware of the endless hours of work that would be required to reach that magical level of performance at which technique no longer seems even a consideration.  [I once watched Mstislav Rostropovich playing the cello.  He was a big man, and he leaned away from the cello as he played, as though the physical work of producing sounds were so far beneath his notice that he scarcely needed to attend to the instrument.  He seemed to be listening to himself rather than playing.  It was an astonishing moment.]
Which brings me to a puzzle that has mystified Susie and me for some time now.  When we lived in Western Massachusetts, we attended each summer the series of concerts put on by an Early Music group called Aston Magna that performs on Saturdays in Great Barrington, MA.  The musical director of the group is violinist Daniel Stepner, who with his wife, Laura Jeppeson, a world-class performer on the viola da gamba, was for many years the mainstay of the Boston Fine Arts Museum trio.  The concerts, put on in this rural Western Massachusetts community, regularly achieved a truly transcendent level of technical precision and musicality on period instruments. 
When we bought our Paris apartment in 2004, we started going to a selection of the many, many early music concerts that are available during the Paris season -- some at the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages, others in out of the way churches in higher numbered arrondissements.  Now, Paris is in every way a world-class city, of course, and one would therefore assume that the level of performance would be far beyond that of rural Western Massachusetts.  And yet, astonishingly, mysteriously, the concerts by Aston Magna and other Western Massachusetts early music ensembles are far, far superior to those available in Paris.  In our most recent visit to Paris, last December [the trip that ended with the onset of this mysterious disease with which I have been contending for five weeks], I actually took the plunge and splurged on a pair of tickets to a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio in the majestic Eglise de la Madeleine.  It was godawful!  Masses of singers making a muddy sound, adequate instrumentalists who seemed never quite precisely in time.  And, of course, a huge elegantly dressed audience who cheered this mess to the echo, demanding an encore.
These are strange times.


James Camien McGuiggan said...

This doesn't surprise me as much as you, I think. I have a very good friend, a frighteningly talented composer, who has studied composition in Paris for the last year and a half. He is also the frontman of a superb rock band (Ana Gog), and so he has been in both the classical- and pop-music worlds. He has been totally disappointed by Paris. He finds the classical world full of people who are great at making interesting sounds, but no-one who is 'a genuine artist', if you get this phrase. He has also struggled to find gigs for his band, because there are only a handful of gig venues in the entire city.

His impression is a common one: Paris's image as a capital of culture is out of date. (This is often said of Europe as a whole: see, for instance, 'Dead Europe', which isn't a fantastic book by the standards of the classics, but which does pose this interesting challenge to those who want to say that Europe is beautiful and culturally rich and all that.)

I don't think this should be surprising: it's natural, if you call home somewhere with a great history, to dwell on it. (Similarly, it's natural to try and stop other people from changing your home.) It's conversely natural for you to focus on the future if your home is somewhere without such history. So it's probably just part of how history goes, that around now we should be seeing France culturally ossify and America, Eastern Europe, etc., flourish.

This is indeed what I at any rate see. When I think of recent artists who are doing something genuinely worthwhile, artistically, they are overwhelmingly American rather than British, who I am also liable to hear about. (I wouldn't expect to hear about French artists as much, as their lyricists and novelists won't share my language.)

Incidentally, in music, the art of which I know the most, they are also overwhelmingly working in the pop/rock tradition. This is probably because classical music and jazz are people's homes too, in a way, and so are ossifying in the same way.) When I think of recent artists who are just great, but perhaps not 'genuine artists', the trend is the same.

So anyway: this is a story with regard to art-creation. But music-performers such as classical violinists have a more technical task, and their ability will correspond to their willingness to work hard rather than their culture's richness. If this is so, then if their skill differs from one side of the Atlantic to the other, there will be a similar difference in some of the nations' sporting achievements and in other things that require long hours of solo work.

You might say something like, Americans have a hyper-driven segment of society that Europe doesn't have. I have no idea whether this is true. But it reminds me of another phenomenon: Chinese people's inability to play football, despite the facts that it is a popular spectator sport there, and that China has a population of 1.3bn. (Uruguay, with a population of 3.5m, reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup!) One diagnosis of this is that China, like the U.S., is excellent at things that require long solitary practice - like playing piano, or gymnastics. But, also like the U.S., it's rubbish at things that require whatever it is that the greatest footballers have: teamwork, passion, imagination. Perhaps it's not unrelated that both China and the U.S. have such a wealth of superb instrumentalists?

This is all highly speculative stuff.

James Camien McGuiggan said...

H'm, it appears that my name is "Unknown". This is my first attempt to post with a Blogger account, so maybe there's been some mistake. I don't mean to be anonymous. My name is James Camien.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Interesting observation; do you think philosophical talent is now distributed in a similar manner?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

James Camien [McGuiggan?], thank you for that very long and thoughtful comment. I am fascinated by your observations about Paris. My musical tastes are clearly a good deal more narrow than yours, but what you say is very suggestive -- especially the riff about China. I need to turn over in my mind what you said, and see whether I can connect it to my own reactions.