Traditional Musical Virtues

The title of the article has an edgy tone, I know; it's a bit reminiscent of traditional family values, that charming catchphrase so beloved of the Morality Nannies, uttered, like a benediction, immediately before kicking the stuffings out of some poor schmuck who prays, lives, or loves otherwise.

But I didn't choose those words just for the pleasure of taking a cheap shot at the Nannies, really I didn't.

What I have in mind are those beautiful, wonderful traditional musical virtues of practice, hard work, talent, intelligence, and musicianship. The virtues that arise from a life spent in the service of making music (as opposed to aggrandizing the self), the virtues that inform those performers who make music come alive with grace, substance, and compelling artistry.

Now, one might think: but aren't they really ALL like that?

Well, no.

People come into the music world for a variety of reasons, none particularly better than any other, but by no means is every performer motivated by the same impulses, nor do all performers communicate the same overall gestalt to their audience.

One example comes from a previous season here in San Francisco; as serendipity would have it, I attended two concerts in one week featuring a violinist soloing with an orchestra.

One was a gloriously flashy, immensely popular young woman who had herself a ball playing the spots off a gloriously flashy, immensely popular late-Romantic concerto.

The other was a near-motionless, well-regarded but not famous young woman who pulled off one of the most transparently compelling performances of the Beethoven violin concerto in my concertgoing experience.

I'm not dissing the flashy player, mind you; she did a great job with the concerto in question and gave the audience a dandy show into the bargain.

But while I enjoyed the flash, I cherished the Beethoven. It remains tucked into my mind as one of those oh-so special moments when a thoroughly familiar piece acquired dimensions I never suspected -- and all this from a performer who more or less physically vanished into the performing space.

I flashed back on that Beethoven, together with a collection of other similar experiences, not long ago when Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes played at Herbst Theater in a program of Janacek, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, and some nifty Sibelius encores. Both players are extraordinary virtuosi, each a commanding soloist in his own right.

It wouldn't have been beyond possibility that the recital might turn into an alpha-male dominance contest, but that didn't happen. Nor did one or the other submerge his musical personality in deference to the other, as can also happen.

They played truly together, focused and intent, but both relaxed and undemonstrative. This was a duo, i.e., two players merging into one but maintaining individuality nonetheless.

The music could not have been better served, nor was any of it wasted on the audience, which seemed to enter the musical space right along with the two artists on stage.

Give the audience flash, and they'll get all happy-flashy right back. Give them a sermon, and they'll sit there and bear it because, after all, this is Art, damn it.

But give them pure music-making, and they'll love you forever.

Those are the traditional musical virtues: abundant practice, hard work, talent, intelligence, and musicianship. Tons of rehearsal, and total commitment. And maybe a little something extra -- that ability to become the music, yet retain individuality and personality.