Next time you attend a concert, and stand to applaud a great performance, ask yourself, “Who am I applauding?” Is it the talented performer, “with a skill set I’ll never have,” or the creative mind behind that “brilliant piece of music I wish I could’ve written?” Consciously or not, it’s probably both. The composer is rarely in the room to take a bow, so the musicians soak up all the accolades and collect the bouquets. A beautiful piece of music can be so moving that you need to cheer, and a performance can be so amazing that you’d throw money, if you hadn’t paid for a ticket. But, take time to consider both sides of the equation that brought you to your feet.
My dad loved crossword puzzles. One day, I found him starting in on a blank grid, with no black squares, only numbers where the words began. Ten-minutes later, he was half done, and had figured out where all of the black squares belonged. That, to me, was amazing and had me thinking for the very first time about the puzzle creators.
Barber’s Adagio for Strings is like no other Adagio for Strings. Bach’s Fugues are crossword puzzles in their own right. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is practically it’s own genre. The architects of such brilliant structures deserve every bit as much applause as the builders.
It’s rare to hear professional musicians make glaring technical mistakes, even on challenging pieces. Unless the work is a classic that you’ve heard a zillion times, like Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, you probably wouldn’t even notice a missed note in an unfamiliar piece. When a soloist takes on an extremely challenging concerto, hits every note where it belongs, and plays confidently, sometimes our applause may secretly be saying, “Wow, you did all that without screwing up once!”
To be sure, interpretation is the key to classical performance. I recently found a recording of Saint-Saëns himself playing excerpts from his beautiful Piano Concerto #2. As he raced through it, showcasing his keyboard talents, I shouted at my monitor, “Slow the f**k down! Play it like Rubinstein,” whose more deliberate interpretation brought out the piece’s enchanting mystery. The same was true of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, which I’ve heard played at least a thousand equally-wonderful different ways, only to be charged through by Rachmaninoff himself.
When I vented this frustration to someone, they asked me, “Well, which one’s right?” Actually, there is no right or wrong. Musical interpretation is like free speech. I guess my point was that great composers create works with much flexibility of tempo and dynamics built-in. Going back to the architect analogy, a 100-storey skyscraper is designed to sway in the wind, taking on ever-changing dimensions. If it wasn’t flexible, it wouldn’t stand the test of time.
Performers rightly deserve their due. But, when I “feel” a moving piece of music, it is a collaboration between musicians and composer that gives it life. So, as you slap your hands together with welled-up appreciation, remember to clap a few extra times for the creative and inventive ghost on stage, who put pen to paper, fitting the many pieces together just-so, in a puzzle of complexity and beauty for you.