Saturday, May 24, 2014

Clueless tour guides

The Dallas Morning News’ Scott Cantrell writes that young American conductors, while technically adept and attractive to audiences, too often lack a sense of phrasing, fail to understand tension and release, and otherwise don’t let music breathe:

Cantrell suggests that conducting students receive more grounding in song and dance, approximating the old European practice of putting young conductors through apprenticeships in opera and ballet.

I would add more teaching of history, and not just for young conductors. In my experience, most musicians are clueless about the societies and social currents that informed the music they play.

If you don’t know about a society’s manners and mores, aspirations and priorities, patterns of speech, pace of life, you’ll be at a great disadvantage when trying to grasp the style and subtleties of its music.

Take something as basic as tempo: Brahms, Tchaikovsky and other late-romantics frequently used the tempo indication allegro ma non troppo – fast, but not too fast. Their understanding of that pace almost certainly would differ from the way an early 21st-century composer would perceive it.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, an ordeal that radically transformed politics, society and culture in Europe and elsewhere. From our perspective, the world before that war might as well be a different planet. Classical musicians constantly take listeners to that place, but have no idea about what it was like to inhabit it. That shows in their performances.