The upper class
I’m thinking about virtuosity these days. Last Tuesday, October 10, the New York Times published a tribute to Joan Sutherland following her death on the 8th. That day (noted as 10-10-10) happened to be my mother’s birthday and I enjoyed the coincidence as I remembered a family episode from the late 1960s. My parents are great music lovers and the instrument of choice when I was a young teenager was the then cutting-edge KLH stereo with amplifier and turntable in one sleek little unit and separate speakers. It seemed super-modern in those days of the console hi-fi built in the shape of a credenza. My father, an Episcopal priest, had a routine of closing himself into the living room on Saturday nights with a little analog typewriter on a card table and writing his sermon to the Saturday night live broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra hosted by Richard L. Kaye on WCRB, 102.5 FM.
My mother was devoted to recordings by Joan Sutherland as confirmed by the Winchester, Massachusetts police department. When our house was burglarized, mother was asked over the phone if she could identify the stereo. Not being much of techno-wiz, all she could say was she knew there was a Joan Sutherland record on the turntable. Good enough to reclaim the prized machine.
The piece in Tuesday’s Times, written by the paper’s long-time astute and influential music critic Anthony Tommasini, shared story after story of triumphant debuts, thunderous ovations, immense technical facility, monumental stage presence (in every sense of the word), and a flexibility of stylistic intuition and pure ability that allowed this one artist to be revered as perhaps the greatest living interpreter and presenter of the operatic roles of Handel and Wagner—two musical worlds that are afterworlds apart.
Miss Sutherland was also humbly self-deprecating, referring to her figure in her autobiography as flat in the bust but wide in the rib cage. Tommasini quoted her as saying that certain dresses “could make her look like ‘a large column walking about the stage.’”
The supremacy of youth
I had a brief personal contact with her. When I was an undergraduate organ major at Oberlin, I was, naturally enough, accompanist to a gaggle of singers. Joan Sutherland was to give a recital in Akron, about two hours away, and I rented a car from the college fleet to haul a bunch to hear her. We had terrific seats very close to the stage so my youthfully discerning and supremely knowledgeable companions could witness every tic. I don’t remember what she sang or who was the accompanist, but I sure do remember that, inspired by a couple little bubbles we heard in the Diva’s voice, one of my flock greeted her in the receiving line asking if she had a cold.
Another lovely moment with virtuosi in my Oberlin career was the morning after the long-awaited artist recital when Itzhak Perlman sat in the student lounge chatting with the students. A lot of classes were cut that morning. I’ll not forget his bright smile and twinkling eyes as he casually shared thoughts about music-making while drinking vending-machine coffee.
Re-creation as recreation
Vladimir Horowitz was one of the greatest virtuosi of the twentieth century, and while I never had an opportunity to hear him in live performance, I’ve seen and heard plenty on television and recordings. He was inspiring to watch. His posture had his face close to the keyboard and his hands were pure magic and mystery. The piano was made a chameleon with a range of tones as great as any hundred-knob organ. Of virtuosity, Mr. Horowitz wrote,
In order to become a truly re-creative performer, and not merely an instrumental wizard, one needs three ingredients in equal measure: a trained, disciplined mind, full of imagination; a free and giving heart; and a Gradus ad Parnassum command of instrumental skill. Few musicians ever reach artistic heights with these three ingredients evenly balanced. This is what I have been striving for all my life.
I love the use of the word re-creative, implying that once the music is created by the composer, the performer with free and giving heart can re-create the music. Earlier in the same quotation, Horowitz writes,
Classical, Romantic, Modern, Neo-Romantic! These labels may be convenient for musicologists, but they have nothing to do with composing or performing… All music is the expression of feelings, and feelings do not change over the centuries… Purists would have us believe that music from the so-called Classical period should be performed with emotional restraint, while so-called Romantic music should be played with emotional freedom. Such advice has often resulted in exaggeration: overindulgent, uncontrolled performances of Romantic music, and dry, sterile, dull performance of Classical music.
The notation of a composer is a mere skeleton that the performer must endow with flesh and blood, so that the music comes to life and speaks to an audience. The belief that going back to an Urtext will ensure a convincing performance is an illusion. An audience does not respond to intellectual concepts, only to the communication of feelings.
He speaks directly to the conundrum inspired by concepts like Historically Informed Performance. It’s essential to play music with deep knowledge of the practices of the times in which it was created, but never at the expense of the “communication of feelings”—the imparting of depth and delight to the listener. To any listener.
As a teenager growing up in the Boston area, I had quite a few opportunities to hear E. Power Biggs play recitals, especially on the beautiful Flentrop organ that he had installed in the hall formerly known as the Busch-Reisinger Museum (now called Busch Hall), a reverberant stone space on the campus of Harvard University. That organ was perhaps best know then (and still is today?) for the series of recordings, E. Power Biggs Plays Bach Organ Favorites, a fabulously successful series of recordings that gave both organ aficionados and professionals a new perspective on the music of Bach. I never questioned it then, and the group of organists I traveled with didn’t talk much about Virgil Fox except as some decadent music killer. Of course, now I realize that those two artists represented two wildly divergent points of view, both valid and both influential.
In his book Pulling Out All the Stops, Craig Whitney, former senior editor of the New York Times, presented an eloquent history of the relationship-feud-competition between Biggs and Fox. It continues telling the story of the twentieth-century American pipe organ by chronicling the lives and careers of Ernest Skinner, G. Donald Harrison, and Charles Fisk—a great read that still makes a terrific Christmas gift for anyone you know who’s interested in the organ.
In the fall of my freshman year at Oberlin, the new Flentrop organ in Warner Concert Hall was dedicated with a recital played by Marie-Claire Alain. A galaxy of stars of the organ world were there for an exciting weekend of discussions, lectures, and concerts, and I was fortunate to be chosen with a classmate to give Biggs and his wife Peggy a tour of the conservatory building and its organs. It was thrilling to spend that time with them, and while Biggs’s arthritis meant he was not up to playing, he had us demonstrate practice organs for him. We ended the evening sharing beers.
My girlfriend at the time was still in high school in Winchester. She didn’t believe my story, so went to meet Biggs at a record signing at the Harvard Coop, and Biggs corroborated for me: “Oh yes, he was the bearded one.” (I’ve had the beard since high school—it’s never been off.)
In the panoply of living virtuosi, perhaps none is more esteemed and admired than Yo-Yo Ma. He took the world by storm as a very young man, playing all the important literature the world across. The rich tone he produces from the instruments he plays warms the heart and feeds the soul, and his mature collaborations with other musicians have proven his versatility and inquisitiveness. And I’ll not soon forget his self-deprecation made public in his appearance on Sesame Street. The cool-dude, dark-shades, saxophone-playing Muppet, Hoots the Owl, greeted the great musician, “Yo, Yo-Yo Ma, ma man!” Wonderful.
A few minutes ago I took you to Winchester, Massachusetts, where my father was rector of the Parish of the Epiphany, a thriving and dynamic place with a wonderful music program and an organ built by C.B. Fisk. It happened that Yo-Yo Ma and his family lived in town. His wife was a Sunday School teacher and his children were part of the place. He asked my father for an appointment at which he asked if he would be allowed to play in the church on Christmas Eve. Dad responded showing the respect for church musicians that has so inspired me, “You’ll need to speak with Larry, the organist. Planning music here is his responsibility.” Larry Berry did not have to consider for very long.
Dad remembers that as he and the other clergy were robing for that special Christmas Eve service, a couple obviously unfamiliar with the familiar knocked on the obscure back door that opened into the clergy robing room. “Is this where the concert is?” asked the boor. One of the clergy replied, “Actually, we’re celebrating a birth here tonight.”
Yo-Yo Ma also appeared a couple times to play for the children’s Sunday morning chapel service, to the amazement and excitement of the Sunday School teachers. I was not present for any of those experiences, but I’m still touched by the humility that would lead such a great artist to make such a gift.
Wendy and I have seats at Symphony Hall for the “Thursday A” series of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. James Levine has been music director of that great band since the retirement of the organ-deploring Seiji Ozawa, and we’ve been treated to some of the most extraordinary music making since “Jimmy” came to town. His programming is innovative and imaginative, and his rapport with the orchestra is obvious and thrilling. Our seats are in a balcony above stage right, so every time he turns to the concertmaster we feel we can hear everything he says—he’s talking and singing all the time as he conducts. His consummate musicianship is communicated with the musicians of the orchestra, and through them to the audience. There’s something very special about the sound of Levine’s music. Mr. Levine is well known for the admiration his collaborators feel for him, made abundantly clear in the up-close interviews of Metropolitan Opera stars during the HD-simulcasts of the Met’s performances.
A pure example of Levine’s facility happened on Saturday, October 9. That afternoon at 1:00 he led the Met’s performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold and flew to Boston in time to lead the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at 8:00. Holy cow! And this from a man who missed much of last season because of serious illness. Hey Jimmy, what do you want to do tomorrow?
There’s nothing to it
The thing about virtuosity is that it takes infinite effort to make it look easy. And when it can look easy it sounds good. A student musician might tackle a great masterwork and exult that he “got through it” when the performance was finally over. “Getting through it” is not the apex of the musical or artistic experience.
I think it’s correct to say that a virtuoso is born. Unless one is endowed with particular gifts, one cannot become a virtuoso. But he who is born with those gifts and doesn’t embrace them by dedicating his life to nurturing and developing them squanders what he has been given. The musician who plays scales and arpeggios by the hour achieves the appearance of effortlessness. The musician whose power of thought, concentration, and memory allows him to absorb and recall countless dizzying scores achieves the ability to knock off performances of multiple masterworks in a single day. Have you ever stopped to wonder at the spectacle of the great performer having to “cancel due to illness,” only to be replaced at the last minute by an artist who dashes across the country, roars from the airport to the concert hall, combs his hair, washes his hands, and walks on stage to play a concerto with a strange conductor, a strange orchestra, and a strange piano? There’s nothing to it.
I feel privileged that my work brings me in contact with some of our greatest instruments and therefore, some of our greatest players. These thoughts on virtuosity are fed by the many thrilling moments I’ve had chatting with a great player at the console of a legendary organ. He draws a stop or pushes a piston and rattles off a passage, tries it on another combination, tries it with different phrasing or inflection. His conversation reveals that he is always thinking, always questioning, always searching for the actual essence of the music. There’s a depth of understanding of the relationship between the instrument and the acoustics of the room, between the intentions of the composer of the will of the re-creative performer.
Wendy and I have just gotten back to our sublet apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. This afternoon we heard Ken Cowan play the dedicatory recital of the large new Schoenstein organ at St. James’ Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue at 71st Street. There was a large-screen video monitor set up on the chancel steps showing Ken’s work at the console with three different angles. There’s a great debate about whether or not this detracts from the experience. I love it. The organ is alone in its concealment of its players. Excepting the relatively few concert venues where the console is placed on the stage, most organists are completely hidden from view when they play. The extreme is the organ with Rückpositiv in a rear gallery. (I remember one concert where the organist was sitting on the bench before the doors were opened and announced he was about to start by playing a simple chord on a Principal. The audience never even laid eyes on him before he started. I can understand the desire to allow the music to speak for itself, but isn’t the performance of music a human endeavor and a human achievement?)
It’s great fun to watch an artist like Ken work the console, and seeing it on a clear screen adds greatly to the experience in my opinion. And of course, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch! The orchestration of Ken’s playing is the point. And of course, the Schoenstein organ is symphonic in design and intention—a great marriage between artist and instrument. It was a wonderful concert—fascinating programming and great artistry in a beautiful church building.
This little string of remembrances, inspired by Joan Sutherland’s obituary, seems to be about the humanness of music-making. Some great musicians are haughty and unapproachable. I was once eating in a restaurant at the same time (not the same table) as Lorin Maazel, then conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. He stood out because he stood up—when the waiter was ready to take his order he stood and announced the orders of everyone in his party. I don’t know if they knew beforehand what they would be eating. It seemed to me to be the performance of “a very great man.” I doubt he would have graced the Sunday School class of a suburban Episcopal church.
When a great virtuoso connects with the audience as a human being everyone learns a lot. As Horowitz said, it’s about communicating feelings. ■