Thursday, July 19, 2007

Taming Rachmaninoff's Monster

As "professor" Robert Wuhl delights in reminding us in his Assume the Position lectures (on "the stories that made up America... and the stories that America simply made up") on HBO, movie-makers have no problem with distorting the historical record (along with other facts that create the context for that record) in the interest of "making it" at the box office. It is not that we are unaware of this precept. Rather, we are willing to disregard it where the entertainment industry is concerned if the product is more … well … entertaining. If "the record" loses out in the interest of entertainment, then that is just how "the system" works.

One of the more unfortunate losers in this process has been the third piano concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff. By virtue of the success of the movie Shine, this composition now has the reputation (due in large part to the delivery that John Gielgud brought to his role) of a Grendel-like monster that devours any pianist who dares cross its path. In this respect, last night's performance at Davies Symphony Hall was memorable for two reasons: First, it reminded us that the concerto really is a piece of music that should be appreciated as music, rather than as the moral equivalent of trying to scale Everest or score a perfect ten in an Olympic gymnastic competition. Second, after the concert it provided the performers with an opportunity to reflect on the practices behind the music, putting the whole thing in a far more human perspective than the Shine experience afforded. Both of these reasons made for a far more satisfying experience than the terrors induced by the Shine story.

This is not to say that the concerto is just another piano concerto. As conductor James Gaffigan point out in his intermission chat with a community of local bloggers who had assembled at Davies, the raw note count of the work sets it apart from anything in the standard repertoire. However, as soloist Gabriela Martinez told those in the audience who remained for a question-and-answer session, this just means that the primary challenge in performing the concerto is endurance; and that challenge is hardly insurmountable. Georg Solti discussed this matter in the liner notes for Wagner's Das Rheingold. He explained that, while this was the shortest of the four Ring operas, it was the most difficult to conduct, because it was two and a half hours without intermission. Now there is a lot of high-intensity action throughout those two and a half hours; but it all leads up to the climax when Thor strikes his hammer to form the bridge that the Gods then cross to enter Valhalla. This is not just a dramatic climax, it is an energy climax. This is where every instrument in the orchestra has to be putting out with full strength; and, if that strength has been dissipated my expending too much energy on all the preceding abductions, thefts, and murders, then that final climax is weakened (and the audience leaves disappointed). So a conductor has to keep the overall energy under control from the very beginning to make sure that the strength is there to make the ending "work." Without making it sound too political in light of current conditions, there needs to be an "energy budget."

In a Wagner opera a conductor (certainly one like Solti) can take charge of that "budget;" but a concerto is a responsibility shared by soloist and conductor. What made the Rachmaninoff work so well as music was that Gaffigan and Martinez seemed to have a shared sense of what that "energy budget" should be. Since Gaffigan was not shy about discussing how little rehearsal time he had, I have no idea how "calculated" that budget was; but, even when the balance was not always the best, the two of them exhibited a sense (possibly intuitive) of what it would take to get from beginning to end without succumbing to exhaustion.

Much of this may have to do with the way in which Martinez seems to have internalized her share of the burden. During the question-and-answer session she was asked how much time it took to prepare this concerto; and her reply was that she spent two months to prepare for the performance. You could sense the jaw-dropping effect this had on everyone who knew the concerto only through Shine; so I figured it would be worth digging a bit into whether or not this was truly a superhuman effort in her part. I came to two conclusions.

First, while she may have spent two months from the first time she sat down with the music to the point at which she felt ready to perform it, that figure basically disregards all the ways in which her general music education prepared her for this task. Much of that education went into building up technique, but I suspect that there was also a generous amount of time put into learning other works of Rachmaninoff. In other words, to reflect back on one of my favorite themes, whether or not she was doing it consciously, she was building up an understanding of this music on those three levels of logic, grammar, and rhetoric:

  1. Logic: What is the rationale that accounts for why Rachmaninoff wrote the notes that he did?
  2. Grammar: What are the structural features through which one sorts out all those embellishing features (responsible for that massive number of notes) from the "core" features that are embellished?
  3. Rhetoric: How do logic and grammar then inform the execution of the notes, particular in the context of the need to maintain that "energy budget?"

This now moves on to the second conclusion, which is that, at the level of logic and grammar, Rachmaninoff is actually rather predictable. The more you listen to Rachmaninoff, the more you begin to realize that his expressive palette is just not that extensive; so, as a performer, you probably begin to pick up on when, even if you are taking on a new work, you are actually on familiar ground.

By way of a more theoretical digression, this involves a principle of mathematics that obsessed many music theorists about fifty years ago. Leonard Meyer (who was, alas, far too much of a snob to ever put much time into Rachmaninoff's music) put a lot of effort into applying Claude Shannon's "information theory" to musical analysis. Shannon was interested in general problems of communication and recognized that the problem of distinguishing "signal" from "noise" (interference) was easier if the signal was more predictable; and he was able to quantify "how easy it was" in terms of a measurement he called "information:" the higher the information level, the more unpredictable the signal. In this language we can say that, for all that massive abundance of notes, Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto has a lower information content than (to pull an example from roughly the same time period) either of the piano sonatas by Charles Ives. The principle, then, is that, the lower the information level, the easier it is to internalize the composition. (Invoking the fiction of film once again, remember when Mozart reproduces the march Salieri composed in his honor in Amadeus. He plays about sixteen bars from memory and then says, "It's all the same after that, isn't ?" Mozart recognized predictability when he heard it!)

This is not to imply that predictability is a bad thing. The point, rather, is that predictability on the levels of logic and grammar demand more creativity on the level of rhetoric. This is the question of "putting your own stamp" on a performance that also came up in the question-and-answer session. Both Martinez and Gaffigan figured out to do this, even with limited rehearsal time.

What does this all mean? I see this as a vivid object lesson in why music is really all about what happens in a performance space, rather than what comes our of some recording. As I recently wrote, even if the recording some from a "live" performance, the latter is still a manufactured product. That product can invoke memories of performances we have enjoyed or, as I recently suggested was the case for Prince, prepare us for a performance we plan to attend; but it will never substitute for the performance. Another point that Martinez raised was the degree of public enthusiasm among the young in her native Venezuela for making music. Before recording technology "took over," adults also shared that enthusiasm: It was a familiar way to socialize. Without sounding too reactionary, I would like to hope that we wean ourselves away from all those recordings and recover that enthusiasm for the performances themselves, both doing them at whatever skill level we may have and enjoying others who do them.

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