The Thrill of Catching Live Miracles
You have a special treat in store for you, if you act fast and grab it. The thrill of catching live musical miracles is coming your way, courtesy of National Public Radio and the SummerFest music festival, taking place as you read this, put on by the contributing efforts of all the folks supporting La Jolla's famed Chamber Music Society. Go to the website www.npr.org to find your local NPR station, look for their listings of the Performance Today broadcast series, and then look for SummerFest, to see their schedule for delayed broadcasts of these live concerts. Prepare your time to attend these broadcasts of live music. Prepare your ears, your tape/disc recorder, and your mind. Prepare to be amazed.
The La Jolla Chamber Music Society has the clout and makes the effort to bring together top notch performers and composers from all over the USA during SummerFest, and when these gifted musicians collide, to work and play together, musical sparks fly (see below for some highlights). Incidentally, during the winter season, the LJCMS brings in noted artists and orchestras from abroad, putting San Diego on the world's cultural map (you can see their schedule at their website, www.ljcms.org, and you can plan your next San Diego visit to coincide with your choice of concert).
Broadcasts and re-broadcasts of live music performances used to be commonplace on America's radio airwaves, including chamber music, opera, and symphonic music (the National Broadcasting Company even went to the lengths of creating a symphony orchestra just for Toscanini broadcasts). Nowadays, regrettably, these broadcasts of live music have dwindled to an endangered species. Blame numerous pressures from all sides: the canned preprogramming of radio empires, the shrinking of the classical music audience, the jealous possessiveness of the studio recording labels guarding their wallets in the face of decreasing sales, and the impatient nervous mobility of today's society, which has trained us not to be able to sit through even an entire TV show without hitting the remote to surf, let alone sit through an entire concert, nor even a single whole symphony (many classical radio stations are now catering to their audience's furtive attention deficit disorder by committing the musically absurd heresy of playing only single movement snippets of light symphonies and concertos, not whole symphonies, and not any heavy music at all).
But shows such as NPR's Performance Today are bravely bucking that trend. Nowadays we and they have the advantage of the internet website as a communication tool for publishing forthcoming scheduling, so that we can coordinate our listening time (and our time shifting machines) in advance.
And organizations such as LJCMS, with the cooperation of the participating artists and their record labels, are working in partnership with broadcasters such as NPR, wisely realizing that these live performance broadcasts are a wonderful way to reach out to the world of music, to expand the present and future audience for good music, and to whet and fuel this audience's appetite for buying more recordings of music and performers, perhaps previously unknown to them, that they would otherwise have never discovered.
So there's hope yet for those of us who love good music, and the special thrill of live music in particular.
Live musical performances bring you many rewards that elude studio recordings. For me, there's one thrilling reward that towers above the others, but I'll save that for the end.
When playing longer musical works, many conductors and performers can give you a continuity and cohesiveness of interpretation that they cannot when studio recording conditions force them to fragment the performance into multiple partial takes. It's notable that we simply use the word "live" to describe a live performance recording, thereby implying that we consider the alternative studio performance recordings as "dead", as never having lived or existed as a complete cohesive entity, and instead as merely being a pastiche of non-living fragments (a crudely juggled assemblage like Frankenstein's monster before that crucial jolt of life-giving electricity).
With some performers, you are rewarded by the adrenaline they get from performing before a live audience, which energizes their mind, their heart, their music. Accomplished performers know that they shouldn't over-rehearse for live performances, so they can leave themselves some room for spontaneity and inspiration when their adrenaline kicks in (Furtwangler was famous for this, and some of his live performances [e.g. Bruckner 5 and 9] tower far above any other conductor's recorded efforts). And, especially in the world of pop, rock, folk, and jazz, artists hopefully continue to grow, so when they perform their old standby pieces live you'll hear new twists that you can't get from their studio recordings.
If you attend a live concert, you also get the reward of seeing the flesh and blood human whose music making you have come to admire via studio recordings. And you get to see how they make their music. That's important because music is not just sound; it is an intensely human cultural process that brings together composer, performer, and listener in a uniting, mutually supportive experience and activity which enriches everyone. The human passion and effort the live performers exude gives added dimension to their interpretation, and to the composer's original intent in communicating (even from beyond his grave) to you his audience.
Of course, looks can be staged or deceiving. Consider two Hungarian conductors. I've seen Georg Solti grimace and cajole, flailing his arms and body with obvious passion worthy of Leonard Bernstein, yet the musical interpretation the Chicago Symphony actually produced was as sterile as an exercise in dissecting a corpse (its brilliant technical competence aside). Conversely, I've seen Fritz Reiner give a red-blooded human interpretation, richly spiced like his native country's cuisine, yet his body remained still like stone, his arms stayed still, even his hands seemingly didn't move. Only the far end tip of his baton moved, and then only slightly (what power there was in the tiny tip of that baton as a musical instrument!). And we all know about the rock bands whose flashy stage shows distract your attention from their musical substance or lack thereof.
For large scale musical works played acoustically (naturally, without artificial sound reinforcement), there's also the thrill of attending a live concert and hearing sonic fidelity that no recording/reproduction system can come close to capturing. I treasure a vivid memory of hearing Berlioz' Requiem live, and being overwhelmed by the sheer fidelity, range, and power of the massed orchestral and choral forces - on a scale not previously imagined (Beethoven's recent 9th was a drawing room miniature in comparison). No recording/reproduction system in existence could even come close to giving you that same thrill. In fact, Tam Henderson, producer of the famous Reference Recordings that are the world's best at capturing large scale music, was also in the audience at that event, and I said to him, "Young man, if you can capture 1/10 of that sound on a recording, you'll have your fortune made."
Regrettably, sonic fidelity is not as much of a draw for attending live concerts as it used to be. Broadway musicals and opera used to be wonderful opportunities to hear music in its natural acoustic fidelity, but nowadays, alas, your live attendance is apt to subject you to hearing singers through a public address system, whose sonic fidelity is much worse than a good stereo system at home can give you from a recording. This regrettable development actually undermines the whole tradition of the musical stage. A great stage performer used to be defined by the heart they put into a song, and by their ability to project this heart to the rear of the house, so it mattered less if their voice was pretty (e.g. Ethel Merman). The musical stage is still in a state of ambivalent transition, where we have the grotesquery of a belting brassy singer being close miked and overloading the public address system. Eventually the musical stage tradition will probably develop into sweet, pretty singers, who hopefully will still have the interpretive heart to communicate the emotion of a song even within their limited vocal dynamic range that the close miked amplification allows. In pop music, pioneers like Bing Crosby and the young Frank Sinatra developed rich interpretive styles that depended on intimate use of the microphone, so there's hope for the future evolution of a viable alternative performing ethos for the musical stage. Meanwhile, you can still get the same old wonderful visual rewards as always by attending musicals and opera, even if the sound isn't the thrill it used to be.
For that matter, even an acoustic performance without artificial amplification is no guarantee of sonic fidelity. Each concert hall, and each different seat in each hall, imposes its own sonic qualities upon live music, and those imposed influences may help or hinder the sonic fidelity of the music by the time it reaches your seat. I've evaluated halls from Vienna to San Francisco, each from a number of different seating perspectives (for example, Eugene Ormandy kindly let me wander all over the Academy while he was rehearsing the Philadelphia). Some halls are great (e.g. Musikverein, Carnegie) and some actually degrade the music's fidelity to the point where it sounds worse than a good home stereo. I used to joke that, after hearing a live concert at Avery Fisher Hall, I could go home and hear better sound from Avery Fisher's amplifier. But when everything acoustically jells at a live concert (as in the Berlioz Requiem example), the sonic fidelity you hear far surpasses what even the best stereo systems can do, and this can be a thrilling and rewarding experience for you. Incidentally, we've written in the past about the sonics of certain venues (e.g. the then new Davies Hall in San Francisco), and we already have notes prepared for a future article on how you can pick the best sounding halls and the best sounding seats in those halls.
Another reward you can reap from live performances is discovery. Wise concert programming introduces new works and new performers amongst the well known draws. Each live concert is your opportunity to discover a new composer, a new work, a new performer that you would not have otherwise ever come to know, since you would never have invested in buying a CD of that cat in bag. Furthermore, many of these new works and performers have not yet achieved the wide recognition needed as a preamble to warrant a big label investing in issuing a commercial recording, so they simply don't exist on any recording. The only way for you to hear them at all is to hear the live performance.
It's a pity that, in today's world, a musical work that doesn't yet exist on a recording can scarcely be said to be fully extant. Reflect on the fact that scarcely over a century ago, before Edison, exactly the converse was true: music's only existence was live, and totally live. Music, the quintessentially time bound art form, was so bound by time that its very existence was totally transitory and evanescent.
Which brings me to what I consider the greatest reward of all. For me, the biggest reward of hearing live performances is the thrill of catching a transitory miracle moment. A musical moment that I didn't expect, and of course had no way of expecting. A musical moment that I've never heard before, and will never hear again. A musical moment so startling, so riveting, so transfixing, so transforming of the musical piece, that I will carry the vivid memory of it with me to my grave
Adding to the obvious importance of a musical miracle moment is the thrill, the charge I feel from the discovery, the hunt, the catch, of something so unexpected, so rare, so ephemeral. Precisely because it is so unexpected, and flies by so quickly, and evanescently disappears into the inevitability of the past tense of time, it is thereby all the richer a reward and treasure to anticipate, to hunt, to catch on the fly.
Furthermore, I reap a whole further dimension of thrill and reward as I internally savor that fleeting miracle moment I just heard, and I let it suffuse and warm my insides, just as Philippe's calvados did (see IAR issue #36).
And it is then that the second miracle occurs. That which was transitory becomes permanent. A fleeting musical moment becomes permanently etched in my memory, and permanently changes the ethos of that musical work, and my appreciation of it.. A miracle moment has the power to indelibly change the way I hear and know a piece, so it becomes a watershed epiphany that forever changes my appreciation of this music.
You too can be permanently transformed by fleeting musical moments. But you have to listen to live performances. Because the best miracle moments arise in the freedom, uniqueness, organic continuity, adrenaline, and inspiration of live performances, not in the stultifying and inhibiting milieu of the recording studio, where repetition pursues perfection.
Let's start with an example from this year's SummerFest. In previous issues of IAR, we've enthusiastically reviewed recordings by the KLR trio, and also by their violinist, Jaime (pronounced hi-meh, please) Laredo, while wearing his other hat as orchestral conductor. Laredo is gifted with an extraordinary musical intellect and a creative imagination, and he uses these gifts to seek out, explore, and develop musical insights that other performers simply pass by without a second glance. As a result, Laredo's phrasing in particular (both as player and as conductor) often has an invigorating freshness. Moreover, the unique phrasing Laredo comes up with is not merely imaginative and different, but is also musically tasteful and exquisitely right (unlike, say, some of Bernstein's phrasing excesses). Thus, after you hear Laredo create one of his unique phrasing insights, your reaction is not to think that this is a strange new twist that some performer's ego has imposed on a piece, perhaps just for the sake of novelty (as with most interpreters of California nouvelle cuisine). Rather, your reaction is to suddenly realize that this is what the piece itself can mean, that this is what the composer can have intended (but no other performer had previously realized, in both senses of the word). Laredo's unique and novel insights represent the highest form of music making: the performer almost disappearing as a servant who by his art brings you closer to the composer and the piece of music than you have been before (however well you think you already know the piece).
At this year's SummerFest, the KLR played the first Brahms piano quartet, op. 23, abetted by violist Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet. Now there's a standard warhorse of the chamber music repertoire, which most performers can and do toss off in a fairly routine manner. The second movement, Intermezzo, is a gentle and genteel journey, and it begins as many Brahms movements do, not with the main theme but rather with harmonic and rhythmic undercurrents, the underpinnings which will serve as counterpoint to the main theme. Then, about 40 seconds into the movement, Brahms introduces the sweet and lovely cantabile theme on the violin alone. The violin plays a simple sequence of notes, and there's the pretty tune, and that's all there is to it, since all the elements are now in place for the rest of the movement to proceed. In all other performances I've heard, the violinist introduces this theme by simply playing this sequence of notes, without attempting to infuse it with any special accentuation, parsing, or phrasing - with any particular insight or meaning. Since the tune is sweet and pretty and innocent, it takes care of itself, and so the rest of the movement naturally follows in the same simple sweet and pretty and innocent vein.
But that's not what Laredo did. Unexpectedly, he did not simply play the simple sequence of notes, he did not give us the simple sweet and pretty tune that sets the stage for the rest of the movement. Instead, Laredo created a miracle moment of music. So what did he do to create this rare miracle moment? Actually, to be precisely accurate, he did nothing. In the middle of the simple note sequence, for a beautifully eternal split second, he did nothing. That split second of silence, that luftpause, tore the simple sequence of notes apart, and gave it a whole new punctuation, a whole new phrasing, a whole new meaning, a whole new life. And, because this tune sets the stage for the whole remainder of the movement, Laredo imbued the whole remainder of the movement (and indeed the work as a whole) with new meaning and new life. By doing nothing in this miracle moment, rather than simply going on to play the next note in the sequence as other performers do, Laredo totally transformed this theme from a pretty and innocent tune into an emotionally powerful evocation of yearning and longing, felt so powerfully that the subject has to hesitate in spilling it out (similar to the hesitations we emote when we're deeply sobbing). Such emotions are at the core of most Brahms and much European music of that time, so Laredo's unusual phrasing and powerful emotional insight was both musically sensitive and musically correct.
Laredo, in this one miracle moment, totally transformed the meaning of this whole movement, and indeed the entire work, from pretty to poignant. Now, for the rest of my life, when I hear other performers do their usual routine run through of these notes, I will inwardly hear it again the way Laredo taught me to understand it in that one miracle moment. And all because I caught it live. You can hear for yourself this same live miracle moment from Laredo, and let him transform the music for you too, for the rest of your life.
You can also listen for similar hesitations and phrasing variations in the performances of other artists, in many kinds of music (listen especially for the unexpected nuances when they perform live). Swing music was based on hesitating a split second after the downbeat before starting a note. Louis Armstrong taught generations of singers and jazz musicians that "when" you sing or play something is more important than "what" you sing or play, and that later is better than sooner. Miles Davis showed us that a seeming eternity of silence speaks and communicates volumes, especially when the listener knows what has come before, what is coming next, and what could be played right now that is not being played. Folk singers like Joan Baez use luftpausen to heighten the poignancy and drama of their lyrics (e.g. "There but for fortune (pause) go you or I").
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