What makes a great performance?
How often do you leave a concert feeling as if you've experienced something special? As often as you'd like? If not, why not?
My latest interview for ChamberStudio has just gone online – with one of the organisation’s mentors, former Lindsays first violinist Peter Cropper. Snatched during lunch between masterclasses at Kings Place, it was a fun interview to do, with him reciting Shakespeare and singing me opera and quartet music. Cropper is one of life’s born communicators – you hear it in his playing and in what he has to say: ‘Isn’t music really all about emotional communication? Isn’t that what life is all about? If you bake a cake, you don’t want to stuff your face with the whole lot, you want to share it. If you make anything, you want to share it with people.’
And so he is also the sort of interviewee who ends up asking the questions. His question to me about why I play the violin had me surprisingly flummoxed. I guess I’d never really thought hard about it, but when I did, I realised it wasn’t in order to communicate, as it is for him and other great players – it’s more about creating something beautiful, but not necessarily wanting to demand of anyone that they listen to it. Which is probably why I don’t play professionally. (It may also have something to do with my love of cake.)
His other provocative question is one that has been on my mind anyway for a while: ‘How many concerts have you been to that have been truly great – ten, maybe five?’ In truth, that probably is about my limit. I’ve been to many concerts that I’ve enjoyed, and heard many soloists whose performances I’ve respected, admired, relished, appreciated, or really liked. But those moments when your eyes roll to the heavens and a grin overwhelms your face, or conversely, the tears start streaming from out of nowhere? In the last ten years, Vadim Repin playing the Tchaikovsky at the Barbican; Gil Shaham’s Chaconne at Wigmore Hall; Steven Isserlis playing Beethoven sonatas with fortepiano at New York’s 92nd Street Y; Gary Hoffman playing Bloch at the Piatigorsky Cello Festival. There may be a few more that I can’t remember, but not many.
It probably didn’t help being editor of The Strad, a role which certainly made me feel responsible for being able to identify truly great playing and representing that in the magazine – when it came to cover interviews, anyway. And maybe when you try hard to intellectualise anything it’s hard to be emotionally overwhelmed by it. I’m still the wrong person to go to a string concert with if you just want to be able to come out at the end and say, ‘Oo, wasn’t that nice,’ (although I do try very hard not to open my mouth until someone else has commented these days).
One’s experience of performances can be completely coloured by context and by expectations. Sometimes the most intense concert experiences happen when one knows nothing about the artist and has no preconceptions. Equally, some of the most bitterly disappointing experiences happen when you’ve bought your ticket six months beforehand and have looked forward to the concert, only for nothing to come up to scratch. And, of course, hearing groups such as the Soweto Strings or the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra play at the Proms can offer powerfully emotional experiences, which relates to the subtext as much as the quality of the music. Indeed, hearing children or amateurs play often packs a much greater emotional punch for me than seasoned orchestras. And in truth, I regularly feel a complete sense of joy in non-classical gigs, all the more for the music bypassing any sense of intellectual judgement.
So how much of our experience is down to the quality of the musicians themselves? It’s often said that there are lots of good players these days but not many great ones – in this interview Viktoria Mullova told me: ‘I’ve heard a few young players who sound the same because they don’t develop their own voice, their own style. There are good violinists around but not many great ones.’ Is this lack of truly great, individual playing why overwhelming concert experiences are so rare? Did concertgoers of the 1930s, when there was a glut of truly great players, have more of them in that case?
What about the musician’s perspective? Gary Hoffman was frank when I interviewed him, about finding satisfaction in his own performances: ‘Once in a while I actually feel that that is how I can play… I’ll feel it maybe once or twice a year and I consider that a blessing.’ If someone at his level only feels at their best so rarely, what hope does any lesser player have? Or is it that refined sense of self-judgement that allows such a player to communicate the truth of the music so powerfully to a receptive audience, even though they themselves are not satisfied?
For Cropper, the key to successful performances always comes back to the relationship with the audience: ‘Music is about communication. Our job is to tell a story that is written by Beethoven, Haydn or Schumann. How many concerts have you been to that have been truly great – ten, maybe five? And what makes them special? Every note means something to the player and they give you every note.’ Great players are indeed distinguished by this ability – the need, almost – to communicate a story well. They usually have the heightened senses of structure, timing, colour and attention to detail that good storytellers have and they understand and want to address their audience’s needs (rather than just eating all the cake themselves).
And yet, even at the highest levels, maybe there is something ephemeral and subjective about our experience of greatness in music, both as players and as listeners. Ultimately, that makes those profound experiences all the more special, even when they come out of the blue.
What do you think? What was the last great concert you went to and how did it make you feel?