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Evening at the improv

Robert Levin’s improvisations with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last week have stuck in my mind: in a way, his approach represents a shaking up of conventional classical-music wisdom as much as some of the so-called “alt-classical” artists I’ve cited here before. Levin is hardly alone, either. I was reminded of Bruce Haynes’s book The End of Early Music, an excellent book that outlines some of the current thinking behind historically informed performance and finishes by not only making a case for interpretive freedom, but arguing that new works should be written in this idiom: that the principles of this kind of performance are a viable form of contemporary expression.
(read more after the jump)

I wasn’t wild about Levin’s playing in itself, but I applauded the sense of invigoration and freshness in his performance. Certainly I’ve heard other pianists I liked better as pianists who offered fresh interpretations; the difference between the freshness of someone like Maurizio Pollini and that of Levin is the difference between finding new insights in a canonical text -- expressed as footnotes, appendices, marginalia -- and finding a whole new text, or rewriting it as you go along. The latter could be seen as a translation rather than an interpretation.

Those who believe that such tinkering with the score is a kind of defacement have overlooked the fact that (as Haynes points out in his book) our status quo, as far as performance goes, is a product of our own place and time. Compare a Brahms performance from the 1930s and today to hear how much the earlier recording represents a different aesthetic.

But accepted tradition holds such sway that any attempt to tinker with it, even (or especially) within the canonical repertory, can come across as radical. The same day I heard Levin, Michael Tilson Thomas (who is bringing the San Francisco Symphony to DC on March 24th) told me about some of his plans for the new Frank Gehry-designed hall of the New World Symphony, which is opening in early 2011. One idea is to hold a range of short concerts in several different performance spaces over the course of an evening, allowing each audience member to plan his own program, whether he opts to attend only one or two events or binge on music all night: more like a gallery opening than a traditional concert. To me, this is an idea with a lot of potential, not least because I can see it attracting the existing audience while drawing in newcomers interested in trying it out; it breaks down some of the barriers that a concert hall can represent to a first-time ticket-buyer. I’m sure, though, that some people will bridle at the informality, or the idea of a shorter concert than the norm.

What are your thoughts on tinkering with the status quo, either through improvisation or through changing the concert format? Should improvisation be taught to conservatory students as part of the curriculum (and why isn't it already)?

By Anne Midgette  |  March 2, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I think all concerto soloists should be expected to write their own cadenzas for concertos in cases where the composer didn't actually write the whole thing out. Those who don't should be shunned as timorous.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | March 2, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

I disagree strongly with Lindemann777’s opinion that all concerto soloists should be expected to write their own cadenzas for concertos …, and that those who don’t should be shunned as timorous.

I would never shun a superb classical musician over their feelings and choice on this highly complex aesthetic and personal matter.

On the other hand, I find Anne Midgette’s comment above well written and thoughtful. (I have been an admirer of Bruce Haynes’s baroque oboe playing - and conducting - for almost 40 years.)

(One other quick point … I know that my parents are sometimes put out by travelling both long and shorter distances – and paying high ticket prices -- for an orchestral program of 60 minutes or less. It makes one of them grumpy.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 2, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

In the case of MTT's plans for the New World's new venue, what about pricing per piece/concert segment? A "subscription" to the entire evening could be offered at a discount for patrons wishing to stay for the whole concert. Since each would be in a different space, it would be easy enough to keep track. That way patrons like snaketime's folks would feel they were getting appropriate value while still encouraging this concept of flexibility.

Posted by: sdeec | March 2, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I would like to hear concerto cadenzas that were original to the artist, but I would not shun an artist who relied on the old score. And I think score tinkering is fine. Horowitz did it. What I'd like to see more of is expressive freedom and less fascination with perfect note playing. Alfred Cortot comes to mind.

I love the idea of improvisation on stage, and I saw an excellent jazz example many years ago when the Smithsonian hosted three jazz pianists, who played musical chairs with two pianos. Hank Jones was one of the pianists, John Lewis (MJQ) was another, and I simply cannot remember the third great name. Two played the band or orchestral parts on a single piano, and the soloist played the lead. When the soloist was done with his licks, he ran over to the duo piano, and switched places while a new soloist started. It was thrilling.

Posted by: cossack2 | March 2, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

If a listener has only an occasional chance to hear a live performance of, say, Beethoven's fourth piano concerto, she or he deserves to hear one of Beethoven's own cadenzas for it. I heard Robert Levin play this piece several years ago and was left with the impression that his improvised cadenzas, while impressive, just weren't as _good_ as Beethoven's. Really, how could they have been?

Posted by: Lutoslawski | March 2, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Americans for the Arts Update:

As of a short time ago, there were about 660 unsold tickets for Thursday's The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra: An Evening of Tchaikovsky Operas in Concert with Anna Netrebko.

At the same time, there were only about 68 unsold tickets for Saturday's The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra: Prokofiev’s War and Peace (and a similarly limited number for Sunday's reprise of War and Peace.)

Maybe after singing a little from Iolanta, Miss Netrebko could be invited to improvise with the orchestra …

[For non-music critics, $36 prime orchestra seats are now available to tomorrow’s The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra: An Evening of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, & Borodin in Concert (code 48074, subject to withdrawal at the Kennedy Center’s whim, etc.) Tell the kids you know -- or better yet, take them and yourselves!]

Currently, 1,317 unsold tickets remain for tomorrow’s performance.

Maybe Evgeny Nikitin, after singing a little from Prince Igor, could be invited to improvise with the orchestra …

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 2, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I understand your point, Lutoslawski, but it implicitly assumes:

1. The person does not have access to a recording of someone playing the original cadenza, and so would never hear it. You may say, "But live performance is different," which in turn assumes
2. The person playing the Beethoven cadenza actually plays it well. I'd rather hear an enthusiastic, committed performance of an original cadenza than a colorless rendition of a Beethoven cadenza. I realize those are not the only two potential choices...but darn if it doesn't often seem like we're getting choice number 2 in concert halls.

It's certainly a different listening experience, not to know what's coming up and accepting the potential for failure. It's contrary to a lot of the assumptions that underlie the modern classical concert experience.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | March 2, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

I saw the performance and, as a musician, I loved it. I think it is very important to improvise cadenzas when it is in the style of the music to do so (I personally am awful at it, but am working on it). It was only relatively recently that composers started exerting the amount of control over the performance that we have come to expect when looking at the score. As long as the improvisation is done with the period and style of the composer in mind, I think it is a beautiful, and indeed vital part of a live performance.

Posted by: Yeps | March 3, 2010 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Tend to agree with Lindemann. Composers usually provide "cadenza space" to give the performer a chance to to strut his/her personal stuff. If he has no stuff to strut, well ... then the composer provides a fallback. But in most cases, playing a composer's written-out cadenza seems to miss the point of the exercise. It's much more interesting to see a performer be bold and take chances and go out on a limb -- even if it's not as "good" as Beethoven's -- than just travel a safe and well-worn path.

And changing the concert format? Absolutely. Stretch it in every direction and see what works. One of the most exciting musical events in DC in years was the premiere of a Roger Reynolds work in the East Wing of the National Gallery a few years ago, where the audience could walk around that amazing space, watching the musicians in an almost theatrical performance, as the music came from every direction. Stunningly beautiful music, and an unforgettable experience. Other groups, such as the Post Classical Ensemble, have also tried to stretch the conventional format using visual effects, lectures, films, and so on, often with great success.

Boldness is interesting! The classical world needs more of it ....

Posted by: StephenBrookes | March 4, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, Anne. As usual your comments are thoughtful and inclusive. As you know many early music ensembles are using improvisatory techniques. It just seems that the pendulum keeps moving back and forth, as it should, and it's time for more improvisatory work to show up. I think it's going to do so whether we like it or not. And as jazz has known all along, it can be transcendent to hear a truly inspired improvisor. And aren't some music schools actually teaching this now?

Posted by: mcooley | March 4, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

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