Monday, July 18, 2011

Playing the Cards you are Dealt

It sometimes seems as if the greatest enemy of those who write about the performance of music are those responsible for all the “infrastructure” production work behind those performances.  (Note that hedge-word “seems.”  I advance this as a hypothesis, because I am not sure that I can substantiate it with an adequately-sized data set!)  These problems can surface in a variety of ways, but one of the most frequent has to do with any printed matter given to the audience as they enter the hall.

Yesterday’s performance of the BWV 232 B minor mass setting by Johann Sebastian Bach, given by American Bach Society musicians and both faculty and students in their summer Academy, was an interesting case in point.  The printed program was more than a little frustrating for those interested in the names of the soloists.  None of the instrumental soloists were identified by name and there were more names of vocal soloists than performers actually on the stage.  This was probably due to the fact that yesterday’s was the first of two performances of BWV 232 and that the second performance would feature different soloists.

For better or worse the San Francisco Classical Voice review by Jonathan Rhodes Lee chose to make an issue of this confusion.  This had a bit of a people-in-glass-houses ring to it, since the accompanying photograph of conductor Jeffrey Thomas had his two names reversed;  but that was just a reminder of the difficulties that befall the writing process when the writer needs to sort out which details matter most.  My own piece for chose to disregard naming soloists, but this was consistent with the way I tend to approach student performances.  I know from experience that this is a controversial issue, but my basic position is that students are under enough pressure without having to worry about what gets associated with their names as a matter of public record.  I take this as a guideline, rather than a hard-and-fast rule.  In fact, I even departed from it over the weekend;  but, when I do, it tends to be bring attention to something particularly positive.

My own bottom line is that I try to focus on writing about performances, rather than performers.  If I identify performers by name it all, it is in the context of specific contributions to the overall execution of the music.  Nevertheless, there have definitely been cases when those matters of infrastructure production have impeded (if not downright undermined) my efforts to provide a satisfactory account of a performance.  I was most aware of this when I tried to write about a performance by REDSHIFT at the Brick and Mortar Music Hall, which claimed to be the West Coast premiere of Arctic Sounds.  This was a suite to which ten composers contributed movements, all of which were inspired by field recordings of Alaskan wildlife.  The problem was that the folks at Brick and Mortar kept the audience in total darkness;  so, unless one had perfect eidetic memory of the list of composers and the titles of their respective contributions, it was difficult to approach the event as anything other than a sort of “sonic mural” with little sense of who had contributed what based on which natural sounds.  I am sure that none of the composers were well served by this setting, and I took the trouble to say as much.  However, in my effort to play the cards dealt to me as best as I could, I also observed that the audience was definitely appreciative of the performance, even if they did not have the details of what was being performed at their disposal.

There is nothing new about musicians having to endure frustrations coming from the infrastructure.  For most (all?) of the recording sessions that Thelonious Monk made with Prestige, the piano was out of tune;  and I am sure there are plenty of modern dance performers with horror stories about highly splintered floors.  The punch line for all of this is that “the show must go on.”  Whether we are performers or writers trying to account for the performances, circumstances are such that we are stuck with playing the cards dealt to us.  Complaining about those cards only works as a distraction when betting is involved.

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