What underlies a great performance?

By pcurchack on February 10, 2011

I had the good fortune to be in my car on February 8th when the NPR program “Here and Now” marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great American poet Elizabeth Bishop.  When asked what characterized the poems she loved the most, she responded “accuracy, spontaneity, mystery.”  I was instantly struck by how wonderfully relevant these words are to why we love classical music, attend live performances, and (particularly given this winter) why we don’t simply settle for our favorite recordings.

Considering chamber music through the lens of Elizabeth Bishop

Of course we expect accuracy — not only in reference to the performance:   playing the notes the composer wrote, understanding the context in which a piece was written, faithfulness to the score, but also in the piece itself:  that the composer has been accurate in creating the emotional or sonic experience s/he intended, and that it’s “real.”

But accuracy isn’t sufficient to the making of great music, or why we make the time to come to a concert.  In coming to a live performance, we opt for the happy tension of not knowing exactly what we’ll experience.  Since no two performances of the same piece, even by the same performer, will ever be exactly the same, spontaneity is inherent in live performance.  We get to experience all those momentary decisions that performers make as they present a work.

I’m reminded of insights I’ve garnered from two Master Classes that PCMS has presented this year.  When violinist Pamela Frank was working with students from Temple Prep, she said “In all music, a surprise needs to be surprising;” you don’t want to “give away” what’s coming.  Jonathan Biss, working with piano students at Curtis, put it this way, “Sometimes you don’t want to let the audience know something is going to happen — just let it.”

I vividly remember a performance of the Webern “5 Movements for String Quartet” at a PCMS concert a few years ago.  The piece lasted seven minutes.  When the quartet finished playing it, one of the musicians got up and said something on the order of:  “For some of you, this is the first time you’ve heard this work.  It only took seven minutes.  So now that you know what to expect, we’ll play it again, so you can really hear it.”  It was a glorious case of spontaneity, and has made me a life-long Webern lover.

Finally, regarding “mystery,” Webster’s Dictionary offers these definitions (among many others):  “profound, inexplicable, or secretive quality or character,” and “what cannot be fully understood by reason.”   Great music, and great performance, does just that:  it offers us a chance to experience things that we cannot always understand, and for which we do not need words.