Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Memorization's Loosening Hold on Concert Tradition

I was in band in junior high. I played French horn. We had to memorize if we wanted to play, for both marching band and the holiday classical concert. It was a long time ago. But this story at the New York Times triggered the memory, "Playing by Heart, With or Without a Score":

It would seem that the filmmaker Michael Haneke, who wrote and directed the wrenching and poignantly acted new French movie “Amour,” is swept away by the mystique of a pianist, alone onstage, conveying mastery and utter oneness with music by playing a great piece from memory. The drama of playing from memory is at the crux of a scene involving the elegant French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who, portraying himself, has a small but crucial role.

The story revolves around an elderly Parisian couple, Georges and Anne, retired music teachers, as they cope with the stroke that has paralyzed Anne’s right side. In one scene Mr. Tharaud, in the role of a former student of Anne’s who has gone on to a significant career, makes an unannounced visit to his old teacher to see how she is faring. He can barely contain his shock at her condition. Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) asks a favor: Would Alexandre play a piece she made him learn when he was 12? It is Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G minor, the second of the Six Bagatelles (Op. 126), Beethoven’s last published piano work.

At first Mr. Tharaud demurs. He has not played the piece for years, he explains, and is not sure he can remember it. Then, saying he will try, he proceeds to play the stormy bagatelle flawlessly, at least as much as we hear before the film cuts to the next scene. I suppose it would have been too pedestrian a touch if, when Alexandre said he was not sure he could remember the bagatelle, Anne had said, “Oh, I have the score, of course, right there on the shelf.”

Over the years I have observed that the rigid protocol in classical music whereby solo performers, especially pianists, are expected to play from memory seems finally, thank goodness, to be loosening its hold. What matters, or should matter, is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.

Increasingly, major pianists like Peter Serkin and Olli Mustonen have sometimes chosen to play a solo work using the printed score. The pianist Gilbert Kalish, best known as an exemplary chamber music performer and champion of contemporary music, has long played all repertory, including solo pieces (Haydn sonatas, Brahms intermezzos), using scores. As a faculty member of the excellent music department at Stony Brook University, Mr. Kalish spearheaded a change in the degree requirements in the 1980s, so that student pianists could play any work in their official recitals, from memory or not, whichever resulted in the best, most confident performance.

Yet there is still widespread and, to me, surprising, adherence in the field to the protocol of playing solo repertory from memory. This season Mr. Tharaud took a little flak for performing recitals in New York using printed scores.
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