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Posted at 11:34 AM ET, 12/23/2010

From HIP to hip

By Anne Midgette

Back in the early days of what’s now known as the HIP movement (that’s Historically Informed Performance), the stereotype that too often lingered around early-music groups was that they weren’t as good as “regular” musicians. (That stereotype has long since been exploded; and I’d venture that most classical instrumentalists these days are at least familiar with some of the elements of HIP.) Hearing the quintet Sybarite5 the other night made me think of a new stereotype that’s emerged in recent years: that of the contemporary chamber music ensemble that doesn’t sound quite as good when it plays traditional classical repertory.

The question is: does it need to? As a critic, it’s awfully easy to sound as if we’re holding up an outdated yardstick, and, like Beckmesser, demanding conformity to a norm that has nothing to do with what actually animates the artist: you must play Mozart well in order to be really good. I don't actually think that's true; plenty of very talented musicians can't play, or sing, Mozart well. The reason it's easy to default to this stance is that the Mozart piece is going to spotlight the kind of phrasing, ensemble playing, and coordination that help determine quality (and its familiarity makes it easier to hear whether those elements are present, or absent). But those elements are essential to contemporary works, as well; and I think there may be a tendency for some musicians to let enthusiasm for the new distract them from careful attention to the nuts and bolts.

Part of the problem, indeed, may be the perceived need to be all things to all people -- trying to make sure a program includes the obligatory classical works (which is a bit how Sybarite5‘s performance came across). Some groups can do it with aplomb; my list of favorite CDs from 2010 included a recording by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider that ranged from Debussy to Cage to the contemporary. But a number of crack contemporary ensembles don’t feel the need to balance like this. The Bang on a Can All-Stars, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound focus their energies on their own new repertory (though some of their players happily perform in traditional classical works as well, in other settings).

But it’s notable that you can see the same phenomenon even among musicians who don’t specialize in the contemporary repertory. A couple of weeks ago, I went to hear a concert that Leon Fleisher (is it presumptuous to say "my co-author"?) played and conducted in New York with some Peabody students. The program opened with four vocalists singing Brahms's Liebeslieder Waltzes, adequately. It closed with Mr. Fleisher conducting Ligeti's "Aventures" and "Nouvelles Aventures," in which three of the same soloists, plus a student instrumental ensemble, were absolutely terrific. The Ligeti is challenging; it got a lot of rehearsal time; it's very rewarding (the crowd was with the musicians every step of the way, to judge by the audience reaction to the piece's surprises). But here was the same energy at work: young artists galvanized, in less-familiar repertory, into a terrific performance. It’s possible that more recent music simply speaks to some younger artists with more immediacy -- which is, in fact, a very good thing for the future of the field.

By Anne Midgette  | December 23, 2010; 11:34 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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It's not only chamber groups, but also some conductors that are marvelous in contemporary music but clueless in the classics. Salonen, Gilbert, and Robertson are some examples on top of my head...

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 26, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse

A couple of years ago the New York Philharmonic tried to play a Corelli piece in authentic style and it was horrible - bad intonation, bad sound, bad ensemble. They should have just stuck to what they know how to do best - let the English Concert (and others) do the period instrument thing. Heifetz never recorded Paganini concertos for the same reason - he knew better - it wasn't his thing. Not every writer can be a good music critic either (only Anne Midgette can.)

Posted by: pronetoviolins | December 27, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Very interesting view on specialization, and the age category of the performers. What I find, equivalent to this phenomenon of youth and new music, is watching young people text using the tiniest devices available to humankind. I used a typewriter (yes, played one in Leroy Anderson's own version of the same name!), and to me, at age 49, the attempts to text rapidly (let alone, to text at all!), seems as distant to my technical ability as a new musical composition by Stravinsky was in his own time performed by those who thought Brahms wasn't so far behind them. Compare the Betamax video monster to the smallest video recording device today; compare the clashes of tonality in a Beethoven work to a new work today--to Beethoven's players and audiences, that C-natural with a C-sharp above it was a shock to play and hear--but not to the ears of today. Why? Because it is surrounded by more tonal features ours ears accept. It is a tribute to Mr. Fleisher and pedagogues of our time that young players can play works by Mozart and Ligeti with equal respect and timbre. But not everything fits everyone--some have a passion for early music, period instruments, others, for new sounds. Some chefs excel at diner cuisine, others, with sushi making. It's what makes the world go around. As long as there is enough overlap of musicians past through present, and enough young players on the scene to embrace the best of all music, we should be ok. Same for critics--and, Anne Midgette is one of a small crop of writers who can take in all styles of music and share the history and current performances with her readers so eloquently. For performers, one quote I can share which distinguishes yourselves in choosing the repertoire which fits you best is simple: "Know Thy self". And I agree with Ms. Midgette that having a strong foundation in the music of the past, helps to understand the nuts and bolts of the music of the present.

Posted by: JBiegel | December 30, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

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