A funny thing happened on the way to writing this column: I started questioning everything about this profession of ours.
Even more than I usually do.
In future columns I'll get at more of this, but let's start with the institution we call the piano recital. In fact, we'll begin at the very pinnacle of the art form, the height to which every ambitious young pianist aspires. Last spring, I was in Chicago when Mitsuko Uchida played the final three Schubert sonatas in Orchestra Hall on a bright Sunday afternoon. She is a pianist I admire, and I adore that music. Win-win, right?
I wish. She played beautifully, and the sonatas proved as magnificent as ever.
However (you knew that was coming), the recital lasted two hours and twenty minutes. Can anyone concentrate as long and as completely as this intimate music requires? I have studied these sonatas, taught them, and played one of them many times. If anyone could enjoy such a recital, it should have been someone like me. Alas, I actually found it painful to endure; it was simply too much of a good thing. It reminded me of an especially long religious service in which the congregation and celebrant suffer together piously, their stamina more a testament to their faith than their joy.
Then there is the fact that Orchestra Hall seats 2,522 people. Perhaps half as many shared in the afternoon. Vast spaces loomed everywhere around the delicate, inward music.
Uchida emerged from the wings, a holy messenger of music, a wraith-like spirit embodying artistic solitude. Other than her trademark deep bow and a soulful look at the audience, music was the only communication between performer and listeners that afternoon. We in the hall sat glued to our immoveable seats, aligned as if in pews, removed and distant from the artist and her instrument. She observed recital convention by remaining verbally silent; she didn't even announce her encore (no surprise: a Schubert Impromptu). During the most-welcomed intermission, I roamed about, trying to return feeling to my lower extremities and overhear how others felt about the recital. Alas, no one mentioned either music or pianist within my earshot.
Don't get me wrong—I wanted to like this recital. I was in fact primed for An Uplifting Experience. Instead I found the whole affair pretentious, untrue to the music's real message, and, perhaps worst of all, boring. This is the confession of a grand-student of Schnabel! I left wondering if others felt as I did, or if I've simply become a Philistine. I still don't know.
To most, it was likely business as usual at a classical music event. Pay dearly for your seats; sit in these and only these seats surrounded by the same people throughout the concert; read from a printed program to learn what is being played, perhaps seeking out a bit of instruction from snootily-written notes about the music; applaud only when others applaud; turn off all cell phones; do not take photos; and, for heaven's sake, don't talk. In this the artist, who is also not likely to talk, will join you. Said deity exists in a separate space from the audience, entering and returning to the mysterious land of Backstage, where no ticket buyer is welcome without an invitation.
It wasn't just this one recital that got me thinking. Much further down the food chain, I watched and listened to my students give required recitals for their degrees. Just what is this "valuable performance experience" they are gaining? After months, even years, of concentrated practice on a limited number of pieces, they walk onto the stage to appear before teachers and colleagues (who will judge "how well" they've played), friends (who are there to support them but who have no intimate connection with the ritualized procedures of classical music and have not an inkling what a "Waldstein" is), and family (dear people who love their talented offspring more than anyone else in the world and yet are often as clueless as friends). The students play as if afraid of making a mistake, and, from all appearances, there is no joy in Mudville as these mighty Caseys frown their way through nine innings and settle for a tie.
Of course! Who could find elation in playing music that satisfies requirements but communicates only with fellow initiates; in which nothing is left to chance; where perfection is defined as the absence of mistakes? The meager audience drifts away into the night, aware that their friend or loved one just completed something considered important, yet disturbed that they feel no euphoria. And, dear colleagues, we who control the curriculum have essentially institutionalized this grim state of affairs.
Questioning everything can lead to action, and in my remaining years, I hope to make up for any complicity I've had in keeping this brain-dead, heart-bereft recital format on life support. It has not always been thus. Liszt's first solo recital was in a salon (with moveable chairs and an open bar), and was not all that long. There was no printed program, since during the final portion of the evening, the audience provided tunes upon which Liszt improvised. Wouldn't that be an amazing return to authentic performance practice? Schubert's music was heard first in small homes, performed by friends for friends.1 Long, overwhelming recitals came along in the latter part of the Nineteenth-Century, courtesy of Anton Rubinstein, Ferruccio Busoni, and others, whose employment of pianistic Shock and Awe literally stunned their audiences into accepting them as super-human.2 It was during this same time that the repertoire became canonized, but when Rubinstein played the music of Schumann, he was only one generation removed from the composer. Today, there are pianists who find the music of the entire last century too modern to play. No wonder younger audiences stay away in droves.
If we look at a recital with imagination, there are so many ways to change it: alternative venues, flexible seating arrangements, a program announced by the performer with comments about the music that engages the audience's curiosity rather than instructing them in dead historical trivia. The performer need not disappear to an inner sanctum when not onstage—why not lighten the formality by varying one's use of the space? Retracing the same path on and offstage between pieces is a recipe for tedium.
As for the pieces, pianists are blessed with a huge repertoire, yet we limit ourselves to the tried and true. "The programming legacy of Tausig's generation—becoming more ancient and ossified with every decade—was passed directly down via Bülow, Rubinstein, Paderewski, and others. It is today officiously kept alive by the traditional attitudes to recital construction frequently encouraged in conservatories and universities."3
Tausig died in 1871. Shouldn't we all be asking some questions?
1 Since Schubert wrote his last three sonatas in the month before his death, we can be sure he did not play them "as a program" even in these humble surroundings, but I digress.
2 See the second chapter, "Creating the Solo Recital," of Kenneth Hamilton's After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford, 2007) for an enlightening exposition of the historical progress and ensuing creation of current habits of recital construction.
3 Hamilton, p. 63.