Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Play it again

Given the linear quality of music – here in one instant, gone in the next – a piece can be very difficult to understand and appreciate in a single hearing.

It’s hard enough in any unfamiliar music. I can remember listening for the first time to some especially meandering work of a tuneful romantic composer, wondering where it was headed, and ultimately unsure as to how it got from beginning to end.

Grasping advanced modern and contemporary music that isn’t traditionally tonal and doesn’t employ conventional forms of structure and expression can be almost impossible in a first hearing. For even the most willing listener, it often strikes the ear as a succession of random sounds.

Musicians typically try to get past this perceptual barrier with explanation, verbally introducing the piece and playing key themes and other samples before giving a complete performance.

There’s a simpler way, and I’m amazed that more performers don’t use it more often: Play the piece twice.

That’s what The Knights did with Anton Webern’s “Three Little Pieces,” Op. 11, for cello and piano in a concert at Dumbartan Oaks in Washington, Stephen Brookes reports for The Washington Post:


An instant encore of the Webern pieces – “so perfectly concise that they barely exist,” Brookes observes in his review – added all of 2½ minutes to the program’s length.

Repetition can be harder to accommodate with longer works, but it can reap rewards. My favorite example dates from 1904, when Gustav Mahler conducted the (now-Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in his Fourth Symphony, twice in a single concert. The Concertgebouw and its chief conductor, Willem Mengelberg, were soon known as the preeminent exponents of Mahler, and for generations Amsterdam was the music center most receptive to this composer’s music – perhaps because they had been properly introduced.

Most compositions fall between the extremes of Webern’s brevity and Mahler’s length. Still, fitting two performances of a work onto a single program might require omission of one or more other selections. That might rob the program of some musical variety; but it also would give the performers more time to rehearse the unfamiliar piece and give a more convincing performance of it.

Thereby reaping another reward: When musicians play a work (known or unknown) like true believers, with audible concentration, commitment and fluency, they are far more likely to make true believers of listeners.