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)?
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