Man, I was so happy, cruising through the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 13-14 season. My beloved Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is doing the Shostakovich violin concerto: AWESOME. Itzhak mothereffin’ Perlman is back with his ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT rendition of Beethoven’s Romance No. 1; as far as I’m concerned his is the only version that matters. Hell, they’re playing the score to Casablanca while screening the film! I love Casablanca! Here are your winnings, sir!
There’s more! Mahler’s “Titan” symphony! Holst’s The Planets! Gershwin! Bernstein! My favorite Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto! And look, Mendelssohn’s violin conc – STOP RIGHT THERE.
I’ve said it before but apparently no one was listening, so this time I’m going to try it with more shouty capitals: STOP PLAYING THE MENDELSSOHN VIOLIN CONCERTO. EVERY SINGLE SEASON, SOMEBODY PLAYS THE MENDELSSOHN VIOLIN CONCERTO. THERE IS NOTHING SO VERY GREAT ABOUT THE MENDELSSOHN VIOLIN CONCERTO THAT WE NEED TO HEAR IT INTERPRETED BY EVERY CONCERT VIOLINIST ON EARTH. IT IS NOT THAT DEEP, PEOPLE. IT’S NOT EVEN PARTICULARLY IMPRESSIVE. IT’S, LIKE, EVERY SINGLE STUDENT VIOLINIST’S FIRST REAL CONCERTO. I PLAYED IT. NO ONE CARES. KNOCK IT OFF. LEARN ANOTHER FREAKING PIECE OF MUSIC.
And let us not say another word about it. (Please don’t make me say another word about it.)
Have I mentioned this before? I can’t remember. Anyway, in high school I had a violin teacher who gave me a big ol’ lecture about how I was far too staid in my performing style. He wanted drama! He wanted me to stamp my foot and toss my head and wave my violin around in the air. None of this was remotely within my personality, but he insisted it was vital to giving a good performance, not only to engage to the listener’s visual senses, but also to enhance my own visceral feel for the music.
I can only assume that this particular speech is popular among music teachers, because I see so many performers positively flailing on stage, or engaging in completely unnecessary histrionics. I once saw a pianist who began every piece by lifting her shoulders, throwing back her head, taking what was clearly a VERY VERY DEEP BREATH, raising her hands hiiiiiiiiiiigh over the keyboard, AAAAAAAND… hunching over the piano as she began to play. By the beginning of the third piece I wanted to put her in a straitjacket.
At least she was a soloist. I find it particularly distressing when members of an orchestra wave their arms around like they’re seizing. I once pissed off Hannu Lintu by expressing my displeasure with his particularly physical conducting style. I realize the conductor heads the orchestra, but that doesn’t mean he should distract from it. And oh Lord, does the principle violinist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra drive me nuts sometimes. He, too, is of the sway-and-swoon school of music performance, and I DO NOT LIKE IT.
Okay, sometimes I DO like it. I adore Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg largely because of her stomps and forceful pulls of the bow across the strings, in a fight she’s winning. But here, I think, is the difference: her antics have always struck me as an expression of fun. She is enjoying herself up there. By contrast, the vast majority of the theatrics I’ve witnessed seem to communicate little more than what a seeeeeerious undertaking the musician has taken on. Oh, music is SO HARD and I must THROW MYSELF INTO IT because I just feel so much DRAMA. My soul is in PAIN, damn it, PAIN, and I want you to know!
Oh, shut it. You love what you do. If you’re dealing with a particularly twiddly bit, a frown of concentration will do it, thanks. This is not about you. This is about the music. And if it’s causing you such emotional angst, maybe you should see a therapist.
So, whaddya think? Do you agree that musicians tend to heavily toward theatrics when they play? Or am I totally off base here? Certainly there are exceptions to every rule – tell me about them!
There are no concerts this week (aside from some free events at Strathmore – check it out right now!), so instead I thought I’d hit you with some pictures, and then smack you in the face with a sock filled with queries.
I took these photos of NADJA SALERNO-SONNENBERG during intermission at her recent BSO concert. She doesn’t hold particularly still.
And here’s the phone case she signed for me! She was a bit taken aback by my request, but my reasoning is that if I had her sign my program, at best I’d have it lying around and at worst I’d lose it. My phone case, however, I see all the time, and I can look at it and smile. Logic!
Now please get out some pens and ruled paper, because I have some discussion questions for you:
For super bonus points: if you’re a big enough deal to have signed things for others, what’s your view of the experience? (You can answer this hypothetically if you like.)
In the concert hall, how do you tell the seasoned sophisticates from the plebes? Easy! It’s all about knowing when to clap. Everyone knows that you hold your applause to the very end of the piece; that’s just how it’s done.
Last week I attended the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert featuring NADJA-SALERNO SONNENBERG, in which she played the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. She received a standing ovation.
After the first movement.
And no one minded, because she bloody well brought the house down, with her swaying and her stomping and her passionate frenzy of notes, but also with her smiles and winks and a playful spirit, just her and her buddy Piotr knocking out a few bars for the joy of it. She got a second, full-audience standing ovation after the third and final movement, because she’s NADJA SALERNO-SONNENBERG and don’t you forget it.
But she’s by no means the only big-name concert violinist out there. I would even wager she’s not among THE most famous. A big deal, certainly, but somewhat less educated people might think first of, say, Pinchas Zuckerman, or for your more modern sensibilities, Hilary Hahn.
Hmmm. That’s odd. I’ve been to live performances by both, and on neither occasion were there multiple, spontaneous standing ovations.(This is the part of the post where I start to duck and move. I’m looking at you, CMcGo, aka Mr. Hahn.)
I talked about this with my mother the other day, and she pointed out that both Hahn and Zuckerman are considered classicists, concerned with perfection and purity of form and note. To which I say: BOOOOOOORING. If you want perfection, program it into a computer. Who decided classical music has to be clean enough for surgery? And who decided that the only acceptable facial expressions are those of intensity or in some cases anger? Why can’t a soloist hunker down into the music and really ENJOY it? And, like, y’know, grin and stuff?
The BSO followed NADJA with a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and again I say: it was too clean. This is music for pagan ritual; is it wrong to expect some rawness? I want a Rite that bleeds at the edges, but it seemed a study of caution as the watchword. No thank you. Bring back NADJA. Bring back classical music with some individual personality.
So! I now invite your rebuttal. Do you think my acknowledged hero-worship of NADJA colors my opinion of her performance? Do you think Hilary Hahn is a goddess (CMcGo) and intend to murder me for my sins against her? Do you think perfection should be the goal after all? And if you do, answer me this: then why SHOULDN’T we just program our music into a computer and call it a day?
But maybe you haven’t been able to concoct a plan as perfect as mine. Maybe you need an orchestral assist. Alternatively, you could just bake this heart-shaped pizza and call it a day, but I’d select a concert as backup.
If you’d like me to include your upcoming concert in next week’s roundup, leave a comment or drop me a line.
The new BSO season came out on March 1. Well send me to Austria and call me Maria von Trapp, because I must have done something good to deserve this — there are a full thirteen concerts I want to attend, AFTER removing a few because the list was getting out of hand. And just WAIT until you see how the season ends!
My ticket wishlist:
And finally, the piece of resistance, the season closer,
Uh, yeah. Someone loves me.
Updated to add: This week’s BSO concert is “Music of the Emerald Isle.” Couldn’t really stretch that into a full post; I don’t know much about Celtic music. But go see it and report back.
Best BSO concert I have ever attended.
I attended the BSO’s Gala Celebration concert on Saturday evening, and although it started with about half an hour of people promising their speeches would be brief and completely failing to deliver on those promises, the music that followed made it absolutely worth it.
First was a short piece by Ginastera – very nice – and then a few of the more famous bits from Bizet’s Carmen. The latter were accompanied by flamenco dancers, and in that I learned that flamenco is really not (to my untrained eye, mind you) a solo sort of thing. The woman looked okay, but the man dancing alone looked absolutely ridiculous; flourishes and stomps that fit beautifully when partnered looked like bizarre interpretive dance unaccompanied. Maybe I’m just a philistine, I don’t know.
Then came a short piece by Villa-Lobos, an entirely unexpected work orchestrated for a single soprano surrounded by a gaggle of cellos, then an allegretto by Rodrigo with a quartet of guitarists. Interesting, pretty, but only foreplay for the highlight of the evening: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg soloing in the incomparable Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.
I had never heard of Salerno-Sonnenberg prior to this (although I’d probably heard her play on the radio before unknowingly); as soon as I mentioned her to my mother, however, she (my mother, not Signorina Nadja) immediately declared herself a big fan. So I had high hopes.
They were surpassed.
I may catch a lot of flack for this comment, and even more so for the fact that I mean it as a huge compliment: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg plays like a man. I partially mean that physically: eschewing the usual concert gown, she came out in glittery pants, which allowed her to spread her legs a few feet apart and hunker into the violin like a football player awaiting a pass.
She swayed and stomped, and when she played, she wasn’t gently caressing the notes, she was fighting and conquering them. So often this is a bad thing – you don’t generally want to battle the music – but this was no struggle. She was clearly certain of her victory, and as such enjoying her path to triumph; every stroke of her bow was a deeper sink of her teeth. I thought it was absolutely magnificent.
As for the Piazzolla itself, it was more classical than I would have expected – I tend to associate him with the bandolin-infused fusion of Maria de Buenos Aires – but it was laced with whimsy and abnormal uses of the music, with lots of scratching at the frog of the bow. Thoroughly enjoyable and I intend to hit it up on iTunes, but I question the inclusion of Vivaldi; the piece is listed as inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, not sampling it. Sure, it provided a few laughs of recognition, but ultimately I feel it took away from the piece.
For the finale, a Spanish dance by Manuel de Falla, which invited back Salerno-Sonnenberg, the guitar quartet, and the Flamenco dancers. Very well done indeed, but a decided comedown from the Piazzolla. Nevertheless, a fantastic concert, and if you missed it: you idiot! Not to worry, though – after next week the BSO season starts up again for real, and I’ll be keeping you informed.
Does anyone know of any more Baltimore/DC area performances by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg? I’d really like to hear and see her play live again.