Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bach Gets Double Teamed

So I went to the Philharmonic the other day. I have a friend who plays with them sometimes and she occasionally gets me comps. The comp that was available was for a Friday concert at 11 AM. I’m a believer in concerts at anytime of day or night but 11 AM might be my least favourite time to attend a show. Let alone play one. I played an 11 AM concert once and absolutely nothing worked. Messages from my brain to my fingers were not received. So my heart was filled with sympathy as I watched the tired Philharmonic players walk out on stage, as opposed to irritated when they tromp out that way before an 8PM show. The concert had its ups and downs. Going to Avery Fisher Hall is generally an unpleasant experience. You get frisked on your way in, there’s always a mad dash to pick up your tickets and get to your seat. If you’re not there early enough you end up assaulting some poor octogenarian by trampling on their feet as you go by or receiving the sad gaze that says “you’re actually going to make me stand UP?” The acoustics give you the feeling that you’re descending into a K hole, watching this concert that you’re detached from and is somehow far away no matter how close you sit. This particular show featured the incredible violinist Frank Peter Zimmerman, whom I had just met this past summer for the first time, at a festival where unfortunately I didn’t get to play with him. One of the best violin techniques I have ever witnessed in person. The real draw for me was Berg’s exquisite violin concerto. Also on the program was Brahms’ 3rd symphony, and seriously, a Brahms symphony pretty much legitimizes the whole crazy enterprise of symphony orchestras managing to exist. So as far as I’m concerned they can program Brahms every week if they want to. But the real treat, or gimmick, depending on how you look at it was to hear the Phil’s Artistic Director play the second solo part in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. So. I could go on and on about my impressions of the performances and what was effective/ineffective, good/bad, etc. But this isn’t my job. I’m a professional musician. You know whose job it is? Allan Kozinn from the New York Times. You ever read a review of a concert you attended and feel like “Were they at the same concert I was?” That’s a disturbing feeling. So many times I’ve felt myself swayed by the air of authority that being published in a major newspaper brings. I’ve had listeners ask me after a review “Did I miss something?” “Does she know something I don’t?” I wish listeners would trust their own eyes and ears and not worry about what the critic says. Hey, journalism is a tough racket, and in particular classical music critics don’t have it easy. Two or three reviews a week? Write something fun to read that captures the feeling of the event and also drop a few insightful thoughts along the way? Brutal. But that’s not going to stop the Invectivator from holding their feet to the fire. I have a lot of respect for how hard it is to be a music critic. But I think someone needs to call these people out when they get it wrong. Full disclaimer: Mr. Kozinn was probably at the Wednesday night concert and I was at the Friday morning show. But with the same rep and two performances under their belts, 11 AM notwithstanding, I think we probably heard similar performances, in fact I might have heard a more confident one. Here’s the link to the whole article:

I feel like Kozinn captured the vibe of the Berg performance effectively, it was mesmerizing violin playing.
But at the beginning and end of his review he goes so far wrong I just can’t take it.

“For curiosity value alone Mr. Gilbert’s solid, shapely account of the work’s second violin line was probably the concert’s drawing card.”

Okay. You already know that I agree about the drawing card aspect. I was very, very curious to hear how Alan Gilbert plays. Mr. Gilbert is a respectable amateur violinist. Maybe at some point he was a stronger, more capable one. If I spent the majority of the next 20 years conducting instead of playing the viola, my playing would suffer. I would probably end up playing out of tune, with a rough sound and with very little shape as Gilbert did at the concert I attended. Standing next to one of the greatest violinists in the world only served to highlight this fact. I don’t know what Kozinn heard. Does he think that it would be a cheap shot to attack Gilbert for his violin playing because he is principally a conductor? BUT HE CHOSE TO PRESENT HIMSELF AS A VIOLINIST! He should be held accountable like anybody else who gets up there.

“In the Bach, Mr. Gilbert conducted from the fiddle, leading a reduced ensemble drawn from the Philharmonic’s strings and adopting a couple of current fashions from the early-music world: brisk tempos in the outer movements, for one, and having the violinists and violists stand.”

Conducted from the fiddle doesn’t even make sense. He led the start of the first two movements because the Second violin happens to start those movements. Zimmerman led the opening of the third. You don’t conduct from the violin, you lead. Which I have to say he did in a very awkward way. He looked very uncomfortable gesturing with his bow instead of a baton or free hands. Now I’m also really sick of Kozinn taking swipes at historical performance practice which I feel like he does all the time in print, but this sentence is problematic even without the period movement diss. How does he know that Gilbet adopted some current tempo fashions (and it’s debatable that what he’s talking about is fashionable at all)? Maybe Gilbert just thinks that’s how the music should go! Why would Kozinn assume that the tempi were borrowed from his own perception of a performance-practice movement that he dismisses as fashionable? This sentence especially bothers me because of the assumption of who made these decisions and how. Why does he write that Gilbert decided these things? Was he at the rehearsals? Or does he just stick to the outdated concept that the maestro decides everything? Wasn’t one of the best violinists in the world playing first violin? You don’t think he might have had a hand in some of the choices they made? I think it's dangerous territory when a critic starts ascribing motivations for choices which he has no concrete way of knowing. 

“There were unruly moments in the opening Vivace, but elsewhere the ensemble was as tight as you could want.”

Frankly, I heard a sloppy performance by Gilbert backed up by tentative playing by the strings and continuo sections of the Phil with Zimmerman trying his best to get through the piece unscathed.

“The soloists took different, but by no means incompatible, approaches. Mr. Zimmerman’s sound is light and fluid, and he used vibrato more sparingly than Mr. Gilbert, who also has a darker, slightly heavier sound. The interplay between them was graceful in the first two movements and took on an appealing visceral quality in the speedy finale.”

This is the worst part. Is Kozinn trying to get us to read between the lines?  Because from my point of view light and fluid = beautiful and dark and heavy = strident and rough. But referring to graceful interplay is fawning from the critic. This was a serious, direct performance, with almost no nuance or shape to the lines. I was sitting really close and the saddest part was that the two soloists did not smile at each other once until it was over. Their interpretation of the Bach was not to my taste. I don’t expect Kozinn or any other critic to share my tastes in style. But the way he describes it gives a completely false impression of the kind of performance it was. 

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