Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Loud Liszt

I recently had the privilege of serving on the piano jury for the Los Angeles International Liszt Competition. I heard some tremendous performances of individual works by Franz Liszt. I also heard more loud, percussive, and bereft-of-purpose playing than I have ever heard before. As one of my fellow colleagues on the jury aptly observed--via Shakespeare--so much of the playing we heard was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What is it that leads so many young pianists and their teachers to assume that when one plays Liszt, one must play as fast, as loud, and as "bangy" as one can play? Especially when there were a few competitors there who understood the underlying meaning and conception, not only of good music making in general, but of what goes into an artistic performance of music by Liszt. This is a puzzle for me, primarily because many of the teachers of these students in question are nationally known. In fairness, I would never wish for my teaching to be judged by the way some of my students play. Yet, there seemed to be such a consistency of unmusical noise making, albeit on a very high technical level, that it leads me to question the direction that piano playing is taking these days.

I can only speculate. Perhaps the pace at which our existence as a culture moves is so fast, so technologically driven, so impersonal, so competitive, and so oblivious to tradition and beauty that there is little time to stop, reflect, listen, and contemplate the more substantive aspects of what it means to be an artist. Liszt himself understood this, and at age 35 left the rigors of a concert career--a unique career in the annals of music that could have continued unabated for decades--and chose to settle in a provincial city in Germany that was not necessarily well known for a high level of culture. Liszt gave up all the glitter that so many young pianists today seek after, and chose instead to compose, teach, conduct, and reflect. All of this takes time and determination of purpose.

Perhaps this is what our students need: Time. Time to practice, listen, read, experience life, engage in fruitful conversation, learn about the larger issues of life, and to find their own place in sustaining a meaningful culture. Of course, what I am expecting from these young thoroughbreds is a maturity that only comes with age. Perhaps one might design a competition that was open only to those who are age 30 and above, and a competition that includes not only adjudicated performances, but also conversation about beauty, aesthetics, and the meaning of tradition and culture.

How boring and archaic...Oh well.

To everyone: Don't play Liszt unless you give his music the same care and sensitivities that you would give the music of Beethoven or Mozart.


At 3:51 PM, Anonymous Miriam Gómez-Morán said...

I do completely agree with you!

It has been a nice surprise to discover your blog. I do not think you remember me, but we met some years ago at "The Great Romantics Festival".

Good luck!

At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

As I said, I've read them all now. In all of my years of music lessons and rehersals I can only remember one teacher that said anything (remarkable) about putting emotion in the music. I think it is a problem that persists, the teachers are so obsessed with getting the notes right, that they forget about what kind of feeling or emotion the music should carry. Perhaps it is too personal, I am not sure. It certainly seems historical, perhaps they never learned or were never given the teaching tools to effectively teach something so difficult or so open to personal interpretation. Maybe it is just lazy, it is easy to just concentrate on the notes. On the occasions when I have given lessons I always try to add in an emotional idea or element, even today when I am doing pictures, I try to get people to think about a feeling, "Think about some puppies playing in the grass on a warm summer day." But what you may be seeing is also in part to the teachers failure to fully understand the nature of the composer. A sterotypical version of Liszt? You can just hear them "Liszt was a showman, fire, zest...yada, yada, yada" And not "When he wrote this he was inspired by children collecting flowers in the field across the road. Hear them laugh, hear the birds in the distance." No, you get..."Set the metronome at 180 and work on those five octave runs. I'm going to get a cup of coffee." Maybe it is in part reluctance, a social phobia, to teach young students about how to put a socially taboo emotion such as 'sexy' into music, or 'angry', 'sad', 'despair', 'madness'. Can you imagine one of kids coming home and saying "Mr Smith said I needed to put more sex appeal in my horn part." "Uhm...Dr Hershberger, how come your telling our sweet innocent child that she needs to put desperate thoughts of death and doom into this, supposedly, classic piece of music you have her playing. Why Mozart only wrote happy classical music." Hmmm, yup, Don Giovanni...happy, swinging, a good beat to dance to. You'd think that in our more enlightend age that would not be a problem. But it is.
How do you fix it? I don't have an easy answer.


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