Saturday, September 17, 2011


There is almost always a gap, sometimes a big gap between the intention and the realization of what you are trying to achieve. It is that gap which is so painful. The critic criticizing the concert doesn’t know that you had worked forever in building up a crescendo, and that you didn’t succeed in making it come out.
                                                                                    Vladimir Horowitz

The critic as aesthetic arbiter has, I think, no proper social function, no defensible criteria upon which to base his subjective judgments, and, historical precedent to the contrary notwithstanding, no strong case at law with which to defend them. (The critic) has served as a morally disruptive, and aesthetically destructive, influence.
                                                                                    Glenn Gould

It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one disregards the good ones as well.
                                                                                    André Previn

Other than in the arts, in no other profession do we find the critic in procession of such incredible power over our thinking and psyche. Do we see people who are not physicians criticizing the surgical technique of a surgeon? Or someone who has no training in law writing about the arguments of a lawyer in a court case?

Yet this is precisely what we have in music and art, where we have the critic, sometimes with little training in the field, exerting enormous influence on how the audience or museum visitors feel about a musical performance, a painting, a movie, a novel, or a play. How many people would rush to pick up a copy of the New York Times after attending a concert in Carnegie Hall, just to find out how the distinguished critic of the newspaper feel about the performance. Or even before deciding whether to attend the performance in the first place. This in turn would affect how we tell our friends at the next dinner party about how we like the performance ourselves.

Performers themselves have also been guilty of hanging on the word of the critic. Naturally, a great review in a distinguished newspaper can make a career, while an adverse one can send the performer into artistic oblivion, if not traumatize and scar him or her for good.

We ourselves have given the critic enormous power, and we need to regain that power, to not be afraid to form our own opinions.

The arts, music in particular, elicit in all of us an emotional response. For a member of the audience, whether or not we are moved or touched by a performance should be the sole criteria of judging whether it is “good” or not. As Glenn Gould said in the quote above, the critic does not, or should not, have any role as “artistic arbiter”.

Glenn Gould often talked about the circus mentality in a musical performance. If we like someone, we cheer him to the rafters, and we make him a star. If we dislike him or her, we boo until the person leaves the stage. The critic has certainly played a crucial role in cultivating this kind of thinking, because we see a great deal of plain nastiness in music criticism. For one of his recordings, Gould himself infuriated the critics (I hope) by writing four “reviews” of the album, using all the catch phrases and clichés favoured by musical journalists.

Music is perhaps the most fluid of all the arts. As soon as a note is played, or sung, it becomes something that has already happened. An artist can play that same note one way tonight, and an entirely different way tomorrow.

When we try to seize upon something so fluid, we are in fact impeding creativity and originality in the arts and in the inherent process of art making, and taking away what is pure and precious in all our artistic endeavors.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Chopin's Orchestra

One would be at risk of stating the obvious to say that Frédéric Chopin’s two piano concerti contain highly original, ravishing, and brilliant writing for the composer’s chosen instrument. Musicians have been much less fulsome, however, when it comes to Chopin’s writing for the orchestra in these same concerti. Even some of the greatest pianists have considered the orchestral parts for Chopin’s concerti ineffective, if not downright weak. Other pianists and composers have been guilty of “re-orchestrating” Chopin’s writing, or cut out chunks of the tutti when performing the works.

Chopin wrote his two piano concerti at the outset of his career, and he wrote these works in order to showcase his talents as a composer for the piano, and as a virtuoso pianist. If we really listen carefully and examine the scores for these two concerti, we will discover the beauty and the sensitivity of the orchestral writing.

I content that Chopin knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the orchestral parts for these concerti.

For a composer who did not know how to write for the orchestra, Chopin certainly did not skim on the orchestral forces. The instrumentation for both concerti are remarkably similar – strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two trumpets for both concerti, as well as timpani; four horns for the first concerto, and two for the second concerto; a trombone for the first concerto, but bass trombone for the second concerto – rather a large orchestra for an “inexperienced” composer!

What is remarkable, especially in the outer movements of both concerti, is that while the composer marshals his orchestral forces to create some stirring sounds, the orchestral writing is so sensitively written that at no time is the solo piano part ever overwhelmed by the orchestra. This same sensitivity can be found in Anton Dvorak’s justly famous cello concerto, in which the single cello can always be heard along with a similarly large orchestra.

Another aspect of these concerti that catches my ears is the incredible beauty of the writing for the woodwinds, especially in the slow movements. In the slow movement of the first concerto, for instance, the bassoon plays a descending countermelody (first appearing in measure 31) that sets off beautifully the predominantly ascending melody of the piano part.

Yet another interesting orchestral effect can be found in the third movement of the second concerto. When the pianist plays a jaunty unison melody marked scherzando (measure 145), Chopin instructs his string players to play the accompaniment figures col legno (hitting the string with the wood of the bow), an effect that perfectly suits the character of the piano theme.

No one is claiming Chopin to be an orchestrator on par with Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, but we need make no apologies for him when it comes to his orchestral writing in these concerti. I find it interesting that no one ever comments upon the orchestral writing in Paganini’s violin concerti, which is much more bombastic, and less sensitively written than Chopin’s piano concerti.

When I listen to pianist Krystian Zimerman’s recordings of the two Chopin concerti, with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I feel that a sympathetic conductor can make these concerti a true collaboration between soloist and orchestra. Perhaps what we need are sensitive podium maestros who can really bring out the beauty of the orchestral writings in this pair of youthful concerti.