If you don't feel anything for the piece, why play it?
One way classical fandom is different from those for the other kinds of music and arts is how often we classical mavens are expected to find something new in a work we've been through many times before. Think of it: Pop music (in all its many manifestations), films, television, books — all mostly enjoyed in first-time (usually only-time) encounters. Sure, there are vintage movie channels, TV reruns, oldies stations and the occasional re-read. We all have the faves we enjoy returning to time and time again, myself included. But look what's on the top of the charts, winning the Nielsen sweeps, heading the best-seller lists and grossing the most in the cinemas. Hint: It's not Sgt. Pepper, Friends, Gone with the Wind or The Godfather. Maybe theater comes closest to classical, with its many revivals. But in classical, it's about 90% or more revival.
Folks, this has to change, and in two ways. First, the ratio of new to old has to be, if not reversed, at least greatly adjusted toward the new. That leads of course to the question "which new do you mean?" Permit me to duck that for now; I've written about it before and will no doubt write about it again.
Second, the classics should be revived only when the performing artists have something special to say about them. Maybe this comes from airing out the same old pieces time and time again over 35 years of classical broadcasting. But I've totally lost patience with performances that, however technically competent, add nothing new to my understanding or enjoyment of a piece. I'm with the acclaimed composer and writer Ned Rorem, who in his famous article on the Beatles wrote, "It's hard still to care whether some virtuoso tonight will perform the "Moonlight" Sonata a bit better or a bit worse than another virtuoso performed it last night." Sure, I still broadcast these new performances. It's my job (at least to the end of this year) and you might not be as jaded as I am.
And I perennially hold out hope that a new performance will come along to breath new life into some old warhorse. When it does, I'll give credit where due, as I've done in previous posts about fresh takes on works of Bach, Mozart, Ravel and Barber. But as a wise man once said, praise is meaningless without the possibility of criticism. So now, with heavy heart, I single out a new performance for opprobrium.
Perhaps you heard it Thursday afternoon on WFCR. Or perhaps you'll hear it when we play it again (you might disagree with me, and I want to be fair). In any case, it's the New York-based chamber orchestra The Knights, Eric Jacobsen conducting, and their new Sony Classical recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. What so bothered me about this performance? Some extreme of tempo? Some eccentricity of articulation? Some gross miscalculation?
I wish. No, what irked me was the performance's utter lack of viewpoint, absence of individuality, and dearth of energy. Soft-grained in sonority, mild in attack, metronomic in tempo, narrow in dynamic range, the performance sucked the excitement of a work that, no matter how often you've heard it, still has the potential to thrill. I've heard and liked many a Beethoven Fifth in my day, from stately Sir Georg Solti to sprightly Sir John Eliot Gardner, from ultra-romantic to 100% HIP (historically-informed performance). But I can't recall another performance that made so little out the great work. And these are really top-notch musicians, whose work I've enjoyed and praised before.
Why would they do it this way? I can only assume that the effect, or lack of effect, was intentional. You know what it reminded me of? Not other classical music performances. Rather, what came to mind were similarly ineffectual Broadway revivals of two of my favorite works of American music theater, the chilly 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof starring Alfred Molina, and the grossly overrated 2005 John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd , co-starring Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone. Each production seemed, for the life of me, determined to drain all the emotion of the respective play, to the point of each staging what should have been powerful encounters between characters* with said characters standing on different parts of the stage, not even facing each other. It struck me on those occasions, as it did hearing The Knights' Beethoven, that maybe the performers really didn't like the work they were doing that much, and begrudged the emotional wallop we suckers in the audience craved. Well, if that's the way they feel, maybe they should perform something else, something they really have a feeling for and believe in. If you're too cool to meet a work of art on its terms, leave it to those who aren't.
By the way, the album is available for listening on Spotify. Go ahead, check it out, and let me know if you think I'm being too harsh. You also may think I've unfairly singled out a young up-and-coming group when I could have targeted any number of overhyped superstars coasting on their inflated repuations. Fair enough. But it's upon groups like The Knights that I have invested so much hope. Don't let us down, folks!
*Tevye and Golda's "Do You Love Me" duet in Fiddler ; Sweeney realizing that the beggar woman was his wife in the final bakehouse scene in Sweeney Todd .