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Should classical players cross over?

Kennedy plays jazz. Photo by Lukas Beck under licence to EMI Classics

While I’ve been researching my article on violinists who’ve crossed musical borderlines, for Sinfini Music, I found myself debating with myself (a bad habit). What gives violin stars the right to pick up another genre? Of course there’s no such thing as rights when it comes to music, but there is a certain sense of appropriateness (or appropriation). I wouldn’t go on stage at the Festival Hall and play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto if I didn’t have complete control of the notes, the intonation and the style. These days, few artists would dare play Bach in public without having considerable knowledge of Bach’s time and style, and at least having made a call about how to employ that. There has been plenty of discussion about 'authenticity' when it comes to Baroque music, but should the same rules apply for classical musicians exploring other styles?

My other, self-interested, reason for pondering the question is that I’m in a band that plays Sephardic music – the ancient songs of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. A few times over our 13 years together we have had comments made by Sephardic and world music purists questioning whether a bunch of Jewish folk from North London brought up in Western Classical, jazz and rock traditions can properly approach this historic canon, which is inflected with flamenco, Balkan and Arabic conventions that are far from our mother tongues (not to mention Ladino, the ancient and beautiful language in which the songs are sung).

So what does it mean to be authentic, and how important is it anyway? When Yehudi Menuhin or Joshua Bell play Indian ragas, they essentially sound like Yehudi Menuhin or Joshua Bell – speaking a different language, but with the same sound and expression they employ in the rest of their repertoire. To hear how it’s supposed to sound I’m sure you could go to any village in India and hear players who play it more authentically, and I’m sure Menuhin and Bell would be the first to say that.

I even wonder if it’s even neurologically possible for players to be truly great, simultaneously, in different styles. I believe our sound worlds and our approach to rhythm and musical structure must be pretty well hardwired by the time we’ve learnt one style, and to change that, or overwrite it, or even to entertain two different musical languages, at a later date, is not physiologically possible. (Even people who are completely fluent in a foreign language usually still have an accent.) Of course that’s merely a hunch, which I can’t prove scientifically, but I say it on the basis of my own experience learning to be more flexible about rhythm, trying (and failing) to pick up the nuances of Arabic scales, and to think outside the classic eight-bar phrase structure of Western Classical music.

I also say it because I have yet to hear anyone who has excelled completely in different styles. The closest it gets on my list is Nigel Kennedy, who obviously steeped himself in jazz violin from an early age and is passionate about it. And yet the times I’ve heard him live even he still sounds like a classical violinist in his melodic and structural instincts. Hearing jazz violinist Chris Garrick come on stage at his last Barbican gig and run improvisational rings around him only reinforced this thought. (Indeed, improvisation seems to be the Achilles Heel for classical musicians crossing over.)

Perlman, too, in his klezmer explorations, comes close to sounding authentic, to my untrained ears, but arguably, with his parents coming from Poland, he is more directly related to the tradition. Certainly his jazz record with Oscar Peterson, as lovely as it sounds, bears little relation to real jazz.

But then maybe that’s one of the points to what they’re doing – sounding lovely. Creating something that no one’s heard before but that sounds good. My experience at Womad this year was of many different pairings of players from different traditions – Senegalese kora and Welsh harp with Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch, US and English folk traditions with Dom Flemons and Martin Simpson. Listening to Laura Mvula at the Proms last week I heard a giant symphony orchestra supporting beautiful jazz-pop lines in true classical style. There are many other examples of people from different traditions working together like this. Is what they do authentic? Of course not. It may be infused with both respective styles, but you don’t fully get to hear a pure tradition.

Should we be worried that this seemingly growing trend threatens the purity of traditions? I don’t think so. My obsession with Bellowhead, the twelve-piece English band that has brought brass, funk and punk to the English tradition, led me to discover more of English folk tradition, both current and historic. One of my favourite CDs, Bruce Springsteen singing American folk songs, led me to investigate Woody Guthrie.

How can existentialist philosophers help here? A gross simplification of their concept of authenticity is of finding a way of being true to oneself within the constricts of the external world. We interact with the external world in whatever ways we need to, but we find something that is core to our selves and find ways of expressing that in an honest way. By that token, all the players on my Sinfini list all do what they’re doing well: I think they all pass this test. Whatever you think of him having to read off the music and of his ornamentation, Bell is clearly deep inside the Indian music he’s performing, and he’s still expressing himself as Joshua Bell. Menuhin, too, means every note he plays.

To contrast that, one of the least authentic performers I’ve ever seen is André Rieu. He was classically trained, his father was a conductor and he’s spent most of his life playing the waltz repertoire. Yet when I went to see him live the rictus grin, fake joviality, stock waltz beat and underwhelming lack of charm made me feel queasy (more so for knowing that he is probably one of the richest violinists in the world). And I say that with a real affection for the genre, having been brought up on my father’s favourite Baron von Vecsey LPs and New Year’s Day concert broadcasts from Vienna. There's no sense of real authentic communication, and for me he lets the style down.

So, to answer my own question, of course players have the right to try different styles, as long as they’re respectful of the traditions and their collaborators, and they’re genuinely conveying something of the music, as they’ve sought to understand it, and of themselves. But then that applies to classical music just as much, doesn’t it?

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