Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Preparing for a Rich Season of Music Performances

"What does one do when attending a performance of classical music? If one wants to do it well, how does one prepare?" I cannot enumerate the number of times I have been confronted with these questions. After decades of trying to answer them, about all that I can say is that neither admits of a simple answer; so the best one can do is come up with hypotheses, work (rehearse?) with them, and see if they make matters any better. My own quest has taken me to hypotheses in two related areas concerned, respectively, with the nature of listening itself (from a heavily phenomenological point of view) and the nature of performance (with a bias towards an ethnographic analysis of work practices). Hypotheses streaming down these paths collide with each other when it comes to the study of conductors, who must master skills of both listening and performing of the highest order. The impact of those collisions often resembles those that take place in the physical world of the accelerators required for the study of high-energy physics; and, when a large-ensemble performance really "works," high-energy physics may be just the right metaphor for the result.

Unfortunately, those who have tried to write about conductors tend to produce either hagiographies or gossip at its most salacious. I have now completed the eleven chapters on the first contents page of Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power; and it is more than abundantly clear that hagiography is not his cup of tea. I suppose his thesis is that, among music professionals, the belief that there is something special about conductors (both past and present) is a dangerous illusion (myth); and the worst of the danger lies in the fact that conductors care more about acquiring and exercising power than about the music they are conducting. Whether or not either of the assertions behind this thesis is tenable, however, Lebrecht is not interested in making his case through strategies of logic. Rather, he has decided to apply his literary skills (such as they are) to the time-honored logical fallacy of ad hominem argument; and the result may be one of the most comprehensive documents of character assassination outside of the profession of politics.

This is not the first time I have tried to set down my thoughts about a book while reading it. I always seem to do this, however, under similar circumstances: The argument is so weak that I feel I have to document my aggravations as they arise. It also usually seems to be the case that weak argument is accompanied by weak writing or editing skills; and, in this case, the text abounds with both types of flaws. Lebrecht clearly loves to have a way with words; but he is so smitten with that "way" that he becomes very tedious very quickly. He is in dire need of an editor with a firm hand to remind him just how far he is stretching the patience of his reader. Unfortunately, as we can see from the Amazon LOOK INSIDE! view of the second page of contents for the revised edition of this book, editorial support could not even catch the misspelling of the one power player in the book who is not a conductor, Ronald Wilford of Columbia Artists Management Inc. This is but one of many instances of sloppy editing, but it is disconcerting that the casual reader will probably confront it before encountering any of the author's text. Larger-scale problems, such as the lack of overall coherence, are probably a sign that the book is a collection of essays written over a considerable time that were never integrated, which is a sin that can be shared by author and editor in equal measure.

Blowing off some steam about this book has made me feel a bit better. It also gives me a bit more confidence in my own methodological conviction that one learns about listening to music by listening to music. However, the book has also reminded me just how many dangers of distraction confront the would-be serious listener and how many of those dangers can easily disguise themselves as serious writing.

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