30 Days of Music Tidbits: Day 4, the 1% Percent Factor

How much of the classical repertoire do we actually perform or listen to? This question is prompted by a remark baritone Luca Pisaroni made after a recital he gave in DC last (for which I wrote the program note). For those of you who are not song-recital aficionados, they are a chance for the singer–rather than librettist–to shape the arc of the program and select the emotions, themes, personas etc. that will be presented. Crude analogy perhaps, but it’s sort of stand-up comedy for classical music, just as hard (maybe harder as you have to sing not speak, also in 3 or four languages, and hard to save yourself with an ad lib, although Luca did get in a line about his adorable dogs, one of whom worked on getting himself arrested at The White House).

Shaping a recital program, there’s a natural tendency to go with the tried and true, and Luca departed from this in a fascinating way, filling it full of unusual works, including a set of songs by Johann Friedrich Reichardt to poems by Petrarch, which I had never heard, and barely even heard of–even given 20 years of program note writing, and 35 years since my first music review. The remainder was Beethoven (but Italian songs), Brahms, and a Liszt set that managed to avoid most of the chestnuts. I asked him about his unusual programming and he responded if we only perform or listen to the “hits” that limits us to about “1%” of the music, and there is “so much else out there worth hearing.”

This was thought provoking, and in part reflective of the fact that he’s a searching artist and a smart guy, one who doesn’t want to be bored or bore his audience. And I’ve encountered or read the same sentiment from others. One of the many new astonishing violinists on the scene (there seems to be an infinite supply) told an interviewer in Gramophone (I think) that there had to be life beyond performing the seven big concertos (even at the ultra elite level) and maybe 3 or 4 recital programs for an entire career. My guess is that this was Ray Chen, but I can’t remember the quote.)

Ned Rorem, also chimes in, confessing in one of his diaries or essays that his disinterest in attending to New York Concert life in part stems from not wanting to hear yet another pianist traverse a Beethoven sonata for the umpteenth time (so that he can compare it, or pretend to compare it Brendel, Schnabel, Kempff, or God knows who).

A music prof of mine also inveighed against the tendency to unearth, perform, and record every last note by the established masters, including their worst efforts, rather than championing the best of lesser known composers who were their contemporaries and might help set the context. There are inane pieces of Beethoven–yes, I’m talking about you “Rage over a Lost Penny” – and a sonata by Clementi might shed some light on the age, while offering pleasures of its own—this was his take. (Now we have complete Clementi Sonatas, courtesy of Howard Shelly, and any number of complete Beethovens).

So all of these voices say, get off the beaten track, surely good advice, and I’d chime in, program new works to perform or to listen to on your play list, and stretch a bit. Still, this is more challenging than may immediately appear. From the artists’ side, for better or worse, there is implicit pressure to establish yourself with the well-known calling cards. I think this is particularly an issue for instrumentalists (Yuja Wang did not become a sensation championing Theodore Kullak’s Piano Concerto. Although another jaw-droppingly talented pianist named Wang, Xialin Wang, did record Richard Danielpour’s as one of her first offerings.) A violinist may not want to make a career recycling the big concertos, but unless he has a couple under her belt it might be hard to get the attention of agents and administrators who are booking. There are people who will want you to sing or play your signature piece—I’m one, a Leontyne Price recital without “Pace, pace mio dio” was a bit of disappointment for me, as that B-flat was one of the most reliable thrills in music.

And coming to the audience side, there is the issue that one person’s hackneyed old chestnut is somebody else’s brand new discovery. (Everybody’s got one–I remember being 13 and discovering the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh and blabbering incontinently to everybody about it, only slowly realizing that this wasn’t my unique discovery–my parents had heard it many times, my middle school friends thought me a little nuts, not an assessment that has altered to any great degree). And it was hardly a unique secret–in fact the haunting feel of this music has been commented on by oodles of people (Richard Wagner’s odd “apotheosis of the dance” comment applied to this, and I see from IMDB that the score to the weirdly awful 1974 movie “Zardoz” features it.) That’s one way newness can be conjured even in the heart of the repertoire, there are others.

So maybe programming (or curating your own listening) does call for a magic balance, setting your own percentage mix of new, old, off the beaten track and reliable life-enhancers. For my part, I will keep this balance by pulling a random piece from Naxos Music Library every month–and with their 100,000 CDs am likely to find a complete surprise, one I hope that I love.

And that cues an apposite Sir Thomas Beecham story. He was rehearsing with an orchestra, and the rehearsal period ran out before they got to the second half of the program, Brahms 4th Symphony. He said something bluff and encouraging, along the lines of “Well, gentleman, I’ll see you at the concert, I’m sure it will all go smashingly well!” A concerned French horn player piped up (the 4th being a French horn intensive piece) and said,

“But, Sir Thomas, I’ve never played the Brahms 4th.”

“You haven’t!” thundered Sir Thomas, “well, you’ll love it, my boy!”

Naxos Music Library

100,000 CDs, 1.5 million tracks, a landscape that goes far beyond the greatest hits.