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Classical Music Interpretation: Musician or Metronome?

In his insightful article Conductor or Automaton Scott Cantrell refers to performances led by young American conductors that “lack direction” and “do not let the music breath”. The notes are there, the music is not. And that is by no means exclusive of conductors, or American musicians, for that matter… Many classical musicians seem to perform mechanically with no characterization of the phrases, or in Chopin’s words: “as if reciting a speech in a language they didn’t know”.

Music Interpretation: the “Fast-food Approach”

Popular culture tends to dumb down everything: everything must be done fast; so artists have no time to develop. At times, guest soloists may have but one rehearsal for the performance of a concerto with the orchestra. There is little time left for musical interpretation, artistic characterization, concept or phrasing. Opera stars sometimes arrive in town hours before a performance, while rehearsals may be led by the assistant conductor. The star conductor makes a grand entrance then at the last minute. No wonder that so much music making proves generic. Just making sure of keeping time with an occasional ritardando seems to be enough. In contrast, great artistic collaborations, such as Callas-Serafin, Callas-Visconti or Sutherland-Bonynge, which developed over many years, produced artistic results of the highest caliber. So much for the fast-food approach to music making! Donnington reminds us that “phrases are molded by various means, which may include a dynamic rise and fall, a suggestion of a rallentando, etc. They are separated by a silence of phrasing which ranges from scarcely perceptible to very conspicuous”. But there seems to be no time for such niceties. “The machining of orchestral conductors”, to use Mr. Cantrell’s apt phrase, leaves little room for that….

Because of time constraints, musical interpretation and phrasing are often neglected in the private studio as well. With only a handful of lessons a semester, teachers and students must concentrate on technical work. Who has time to talk about phrasing with upcoming juries, classes, papers and rehearsals?

Music Interpretation: The Good Old Days Approach

Music Interpretation: The young Claudio Arrau did some serious studying, Arrau went to Berlin to study with Martin Krause. The nine year old Claudio lived at his teacher’s home. He took daily lessons; that was a period of serious study. Of course, he was not working part-time or taking eighteen credits or its equivalent, as many high-school or college students are. And I am told he did not even have a facebook account! He was concentrating on his music studies. By the time Krause died, Arrau no longer needed a teacher. He was totally independent and never took another lesson in his life. And he had learned and memorized a considerable repertoire. A famous American singer told me she took lessons five days a week during her three year period of studies in Italy! In the afternoon, she worked on repertory with a pianist, you guessed it, five days a week! Who has time for that today? Zeani in a recent homage presented by Venetian Arts Society, in which The Opera Atelier presented a musical program, spoke of the need to concentrate on serious study. That is what she did during her formative years. No wonder she was able to master and perform so many roles. You can hear her words in the video below. In an interview for The Opera Atelier, she addresses the same topic. See the link to the written interview directly below the video.

Music Interpretation: Zeani on Serious Study

Watch the video at 11′ 26” to catch her remarks.

In contrast to the mechanical “executions’ of music that pretend to pass as performances, we can perhaps take time to listen to some historical performances. There were many distinguishable individual styles in the 30′s , 40′s or 50′s. It was much more frequent that each performer: conductor, singer or instrumentalist had his/her own recognizable style.

Music Interpretation: Our Responsibility

It is our responsibility as performers and teachers to keep the richness of our art by emphasizing classical musical interpretation best-practice traditions. And how can we do it? One way is by learning as much as we can from the great teachers and performers of the past and present. And, as Quantz proposes, by impart(ing) proper notions of artful music to (our) pupils. We must explain and point out the elements of good musical performance. There are great performances, good, mediocre and terrible, with all gradations in between. Beyond technique, what makes some performances work, while other fall flat? By developing one’s insight and ear one can learn to distinguish the elements and the differences among the above categories. The Opera Atelier will work in this direction over the coming months through our different channels.

Ultimately, it is up to you to develop your individual musical abilities, phrasing and knowledge as much as possible. You will be glad you did. © 2014

Congratulations to Mr. Cantrell for blowing the whistle! Here you can read Scott Cantrell’s article:

© 2014

The Opera Atelier

Daniel Daroca

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