Over-Emoting Is A Growing Distraction In Live Music Performance

Overwrought emotional displays which detract from the music are not new to live performance, but are they becoming more pervasive and insufferable?

In an interesting segment from last night’s Ben Shapiro Show, Shapiro focuses on one stand-out act of celebrity leftist virtue signalling at the recent Grammy Awards in order to riff on performer over-emoting in more general terms.

The specific performance that raised Ben’s ire featured U2’s Bono – an Irishman, it’s worth remembering, not a US citizen – singing in front of the Statue of Liberty, and praising the “shitholes of the world” as the source of America’s greatness, intended as a rebuttal to President Trump’s use of the vulgar phrase in a meeting with members of Congress about immigration.

While looking wistfully at the sky and prancing around in front of the Statue of Liberty, Bono portentously intones into a megaphone:

Blessed are the shithole countries, for they gave us the American Dream.

And to this nonsense, Shapiro responds:

As a musician for many many years, my favourite violinist – as is every violinist’s favourite violinist – is Jascha Heifetz. One of the things I love about Jascha Heifetz is that there is no histrionics. Jascha Heifetz, when he plays the violin – go look at a tape of him – is just stone faced. He just plays, and it’s great.

One of the things I hate the most about modern music is modern music is all based on energy and histrionics. It’s all based on you making faces while you sing, and looking up to the sky like Bono. Look at him, looking up to the sky with his red, white and blue loudspeaker.

This is something that I also find incredibly annoying and distracting. Of course this kind of preening and prancing has long been connected with music, and performers caring more about how they look and portray their socio-political opinions than how they sound on record is hardly a new phenomenon.

Nineteenth century Romantic pianist and composer Franz Liszt cultivated such a following that it coined a term – “Lizstomania” – where women would fight even over his coffee dregs and discarded cigars. And Lizst himself egged on this behaviour, being one of the first concert pianists to rotate the piano so that he would face the side of the stage at a right-angle to the audience, the better that they could appreciate his dashing profile.

Neither are all of the musicians I admire entirely innocent of this behaviour. Conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein also cut a dashing figure and was famous for the “Lenny leap” where he would sometimes clear a full foot from the podium. Glenn Gould, long my favourite pianist, is almost as well-known for his eccentricities – such as humming as he played, sitting on a battered folding chair when giving concerts and dressing for winter even in the height of summer – as he is for his revelatory interpretations of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. But in the latter’s defence, many of his defining idiosyncrasies were clearly innate rather than studied, and in fact Glenn Gould had so little time for being a celebrity that he stopped giving concerts altogether at a young age to focus his energies on the recording studio.

British violinist Nigel Kennedy could likewise hardly be described as a staid, boring performer, yet his eccentricities somehow draw one into the performance rather than distracting or repelling the audience or listener. Watch Kennedy break normal concert protocol by addressing this BBC Proms audience immediately before launching into Elgar’s violin concerto and you’ll see what I mean:

 

But to me there is a definite order of magnitude between the baseline level of emoting that we see in classical music today and the more restrained (on average) approach of even thirty years ago. I confess that as technically brilliant as the likes of superstar pianists Lang Lang or Daniil Trifonov may be, I struggle to watch them because of the on-stage theatrics (in my opinion Yuja Wang does a far better job of being engaging and contemporary without appearing like a cholera patient on a storm-tossed sailboat).

I don’t care if you’re hamming up the rubato while playing some Chopin, there’s no need to lash your head around or make anguished faces as though someone is lurking under the piano pulling out your toenails as you play. But then maybe that’s just because I like my classical musicians the same way I like my journalists and TV news anchors – scruffy and unkempt, too dedicated to their craft to waste time worrying about being a walking shampoo commercial.

Now some of these behaviours and tics – maybe even a majority – can be put down to the understandable exuberance and vanity of youth. But I think a significant minority are inspired by a recognition that being brilliant is not enough unless one also looks and acts the part. And the look and act that audiences increasingly demand and reward is high on emoting, high on dazzling feats of technical brilliance (what Glenn Gould once derisively referred to as “piano-playing” in a self-critique of his earlier work) and lower on the kind of subtlety and introspection which is often needed to bring out the best in even some of the more bombastic repertoire.

And so might it be the case that the real problem with efforts to expand the market for classical music are not the things that usually get traditionalists so worked up – wearing jeans to the opera, mandatory white tie for orchestral musicians, informal lunchtime concerts and so on – but rather the fact that more and more classical performers are adapting to the Age of YouTube by attempting to groan and grimace their way to profundity just like every street busker who sings Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” at a quarter speed, or Ke$ha’s overwrought performance at this year’s Grammys?

The point of classical music is, unsurprisingly, to convey ideas through the medium of music itself. Of course individual musicians will want to put their own stamp and interpretation on works, either in service of what they believe to be the composer’s original intent or to shed new light on what can sometimes be over-familiar works in the repertoire. But if you frequently find yourself pounding the piano keyboard like you’re playing Whack-A-Mole or sawing away at the violin while grimacing like your appendix just ruptured, you’re probably doing it wrong. The emotion should go through the music and not be lost in the gaudy, inefficient heat exchange of on-stage pantomime.

Performer eccentricities, when unintentional and/or in service of the music, are fine, and sometimes even a blessing. But Ben Shapiro is right; when they detract from the music itself then that can become a problem – in classical music as much as pop music with all the schmaltzy, simplistic political preening of Bono’s preachy Grammy performance.

 

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Violin Concerto, 2nd movement, by Samuel Barber (1939)

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Tales From The Safe Space, Part 54 – Mr. Prager’s Opus

Dennis Prager

When a prominent conservative speaker cannot conduct a symphony orchestra without attracting protest from social justice warriors in the arts world, we should take note; the regressive left will not rest until they have driven all conservative thought criminals from the public square

Conservative author and talk radio host Dennis Prager recounts a disturbing tale in the National Review this week.

Some background: for many years, Dennis Prager – a long time classical music aficionado – has conducted various provincial symphony orchestras in the United States, indulging his passion while raising much-needed funds for those orchestras and introducing new people to the world of classical music. As an amateur, Prager has never accepted a fee for conducting; he purely does so out of love of the music and a desire to introduce classical music to a wider audience.

These events actually look really fun – Prager participates only in the first half of the concerts, conducting a symphony and then doing a Leonard Bernstein-style “Young People’s Concert” format where he breaks down the symphony under discussion, revealing the inner workings of the music and interviewing members of the orchestra to get their insights. The second half is then conducted by the orchestra’s usual music director, a kind of 50/50 split between amateur and professional. In short, what’s not to like?

Anyhow, Prager was recently invited by the music director of the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra to perform Haydn’s symphony no. 51 with that ensemble at the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Prager has a particular affinity for the music of Haydn, as Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra music director Guido Lamell notes:

“On his radio program he often talks about the glories of music. His bumper music that introduced his program every day was a Haydn symphony in F major. He has studied this composer more deeply than anyone I have met. We classical musicians saw then in Dennis and continue to see the greatest and most vocal supporter of classical music on earth.”

Therefore this would seem like the perfect fit – a rarely heard Haydn symphony conducted by someone recognised by other musicians as an expert in the field, performed in a true world-class venue. This invitation must have been a dream come true for the amateur conductor, who called it “one of the great honors of my life”.

And that’s when the story took an ominous turn:

About a month ago, however, a few members of the orchestra, supported by some Santa Monica city officials, decided to lead a campaign to have me disinvited.

As I said, this is a new low for the illiberal Left: It is not enough to prevent conservatives from speaking; it is now necessary to prevent conservatives from appearing even when not speaking. Conservatives should not be even be allowed to make music.

To its great credit, the board of directors of the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, composed of individuals of all political outlooks, has completely stood by their conductor and his invitation to me.

But the attempt to cancel me continues. It is being organized by three members of the orchestra, each of whom has refused to play that night. Readers will not be surprised to learn that two of the three organizers are college professors. Michael Chwe is a professor of political science at UCLA, and Andrew Apter is a professor of history and director of the African Studies Center at UCLA.

In an open letter to the symphony’s members, the three wrote: “A concert with Dennis Prager would normalize hatred and bigotry. . . . ”

And why?

Examples of my hatred and bigotry include my belief that in giving a child over for adoption, adoption agencies should prefer a married man and woman before singles and before same-sex couples. Another example – my favorite – is my having said that, if there is no God, ethics are subjective, will offend atheist members of the orchestra.

This is insane.

Music is supposed to bring people together, to bridge even bitter differences of opinion. The musicians of Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – comprised of musicians from countries not always on the best of terms, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Israel – manage to sit down next to one another and perform amazing, transcendental music together. I know – I heard them play Beethoven and Tchaikovsky with great authority at the BBC Proms in London.

And yet three American musicians, including two coddled academics from UCLA, feel unable to perform Haydn with a fellow countryman because of relatively minor political differences, primarily relating to Prager’s social conservatism. Because his presence would allegedly cause them, or various other people for whom they claim to advocate, some grave and irreparable offence.

This reflects so badly on the individuals concerned that there are almost no words to describe it. What wouldn’t the members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra give if the only point of issue between their respective countries, between Israel and Palestine, was a debate over adoption laws or a philosophical question about whether or not an objective ethical code can exist without God? The ancient grudges, resentments and enmities which divide the Middle East are far greater than those which divide Red and Blue America, and yet it is in the cloistered halls of American pseudo-liberalism where true intolerance can now be found.

More:

Not to be outdone by these professors, a former mayor of Santa Monica and current councilmember, Kevin McKeown, wrote: “I personally will most certainly not be attending a concert featuring a bigoted hate-monger. The judgement (or lack of) shown in inviting Prager may affect future community support for the Symphony.”

This sounds an awful lot like a threat, and a very thinly-veiled one at that. This is worse even than the heckler’s veto, deployed with such success by Social Justice Warriors, Antifa protesters and others to shut down speech or events which they do not want to proceed for ideological reasons. Such thuggery as we have repeatedly seen on university campuses is bad enough, but now we apparently have a serving city councilmember threatening the funding or “community support” of a local symphony orchestra unless that ensemble bends to her will and disinvites a fellow musician.

I take this story quite personally because like Dennis Prager – albeit in a far, far smaller capacity – I too have attempted to support the arts by giving time and financial support to make the amazingly rewarding heritage of classical music more accessible to people who otherwise might not have had the opportunity, or even the idea, to go to an orchestral concert. The thought that one day I might be banned from doing so because of the political beliefs I hold is as unbearable as it is outrageous.

I have a passing familiarity with Mr. Prager’s biography, work and political positions, some of which I agree with and some of which I do not. But that doesn’t matter – there should be no ideological or political test when it comes to participating in the artistic life of one’s community or country.

I wrote on this same subject over three years ago, when Russian maestro and then principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, was facing calls to resign because of his pro-government stance on Ukraine. Music is one thing that we all have in common, one of the best bridge-building tools that we have. If the New York Philharmonic can go on tour to North Korea then a couple of coddled academics from California can swallow their tremulous objections and make music with Mr. Prager for sixty minutes.

I feel tremendous sympathy for Dennis Prager as he attempts to pursue his hobby and give back to society while under assault by the intolerant regressive left. But let us be under no illusion – stories like this will only become more common, not less, until the Right regroups and finally stands up to the Left’s assault on freedom of thought, expression and speech. Today it may be a high-profile talk radio host and author who finds himself being hounded out of his life’s passion by censorious opponents of his politics; tomorrow it could be any of us.

Whether you have written a blog, attended a march, donated to an election campaign, posted something political on social media or expressed yourself in a thousand other ways and mediums, we all leave a trail of evidence in our wake which can later be used to accuse you of thoughtcrime, declare that your renegade opinions represent a threat to the mental or physical safety of others, and ultimately see you excommunicated from whatever it is that you like to do the most – your dream job, your favourite hobby, your book club, your gym. Even your family.

This is where it’s going unless we begin fighting back – not just making snide jokes about SJWs and liberal tears, but actually going out and forcefully making the case for freedom of expression and diversity of political opinion. We need to win the argument or risk being silenced forever in all the ways that matter most.

For the love of music, for the protection of our freedom of expression and as a means of preventing society from fracturing any further into two Americas divided by mutual incomprehension, Mr. Prager’s Opus must be heard.

 

Mr Holland's Opus - Richard Dreyfuss - 2

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Happy Independence Day

Happy Independence Day

And to all those Americans (looking at you, New York Times) celebrating their wonderful country’s independence today while looking upon Brexit as some terrible catastrophe – why would you deny your closest and most reliable ally the same sovereignty and freedom which you rightly demand for yourselves?

How does your unthinking, slavish devotion to this fraying, discredited world order honour the bold legacy of the Founding Fathers?

 

America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

 

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What European Identity? Part 2 – Classical Music Edition

European Union Youth Orchestra

How can we possibly continue to enjoy Beethoven or watch touring European orchestras perform in evil, isolationist Brexit Britain?

Today’s Peak Guardian article is an account of an interview recently given by the legendary pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy to the Observer newspaper, in which Ashkenazy urges classical musicians to “keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit”.

A distilled summary of the Guardian’s breathless spin: Brexit gravely threatens Britain’s continued participation in the international arts and culture scene, but if enough brave musicians come together in a spirit of cooperation then it may be possible to ride out the gravest threat to Europe since World War 2 and the Cold War.

From the piece:

Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the most revered figures in classical music, has called on musicians to strive to keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit. The great Russian conductor and pianist, who made his name as a soloist in the 1960s and 70s, spoke passionately to the Observer about his continued faith in European culture.

“Music will win in the end,” he said, speaking publicly on the subject for the first time. “After all, music is not just an exercise in making sounds. It is a reflection of our joint spiritual endeavours.”

Comparing Britain’s impending split with Europe to other political schisms of the 20th century, such as the rise of fascism and the cold war, Ashkenazy, 79, said he was optimistic that those who love making music together will find a way to keep connections going across the Channel. “I am sorry about it, and I know it will be difficult to get used to a totally different situation, but for musicians many things will remain the same, simply because we will work to find a way to make agreements for the sake of music,” he said.

Many British classical musicians expect Brexit to set up new travel barriers and present fresh difficulties for orchestras receiving EU funding. The potential threat to free travel for working musicians has already prompted the European Union Baroque Orchestra to announce a move to Belgium this summer. It has been based in Oxfordshire since 1985. Meanwhile, the well-regarded European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) is considering a move to the continent after 40 years in Britain.

Of course, this feeds nicely into the Guardian’s (and the entire British metro-Left’s) little conceit that by extricating ourselves from a dysfunctional and failing supranational political union we are also somehow hacking away at the cultural and historical ties which bind us to the continent, and so naturally they seize on the Ashkenazy interview as a perfect example of how enlightened artists can help to save Britain from the brutish and self-destructive decision made by the Evil 52%.

Now, Vladimir Ashkenazy is not particularly to blame for any of this. If you want somebody to play a Rachmaninov prelude in such a dazzling way that it makes your hair stand on end and brings a lump to your throat then Ashkenazy is your very man. If, however, you want somebody to give you a good overview of geopolitics and assess the relative failings and merits of the European Union, then you are probably better off turning to someone else. So the point is not that Ashkenazy is wrong (and even he is generous enough to admit that Brexit is slightly less evil than Soviet communism, which is very kind) – that much is entirely forgivable, given that he is operating far from his natural competencies.

No, the problem is the entirely predictable way that the Guardian picks up this narrative and unquestioningly burnishes and amplifies it without stopping even for a moment to consider the validity of the point being made. Where they could take a step back and actually seek to educate their readers about a whole bunch of issues touching on this story, instead they strut and pose and play to the gallery, feeding them the self-affirming story that they expect rather than the hard dose of reality that they might actually benefit from hearing.

The Guardian could have dwelled for a moment on exactly why cross-border co-operation in classical music is supposedly imperilled by Brexit (giving more concrete examples than the unspoken and unprovable suggestion that Britain would deliberately make it harder for talented musicians to tour or work here). But instead, they uncritically write about how musicians will bravely “find a way to keep connections going across the Channel” without stopping for a moment to consider the fact that British orchestras and ensembles tour numerous non-EU countries in the world without the protective shelter of political union, while many non-European ensembles somehow make it to the BBC Proms and give numerous other performances in Britain despite their musicians lacking EU passports.

But the ulterior motive soon becomes clear when the article bemoans the relocation of the European Union Baroque Orchestra and the European Union Youth Orchestra, two EU propaganda outlets funded by taxpayers to instil in us a sense of European identity which still stubbornly fails to materialise. In London, with so many preeminent ensembles already located here, did we ever really need these two explicitly political additions to our cultural scene? No, of course not – and the Guardian’s duplicitous attempts to upgrade these obscure ensembles to “major orchestra” status is straining the boundary of journalistic integrity. Their sole purpose was to indoctrinate the young and cause us to associate the European Union with benevolent funding of the arts rather than their tawdry, relentless attacks the nation state.

(The EU Baroque Orchestra has a slightly more successful legacy of seeding other baroque ensembles with past alumni, work which can continue in their new Belgian home.)

None of this is to deny the value of youth orchestras – I was a member of one myself for several years, and greatly enjoyed the opportunities for performance and collaboration that it afforded me – but the EU’s propaganda outlets are neither central to the British classical music scene nor an essential bridge to Europe. Take them away and nothing really changes.

Compare the EU’s musical propaganda outlets with a far more worthy exercise in cross-cultural bridge-building, Daniel Barenboim’s West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, and I know which I would rather preserve – the one which seeks to promote peace and cross-cultural understanding in the turbulent Middle East, not the one which uses European taxpayer funds to shore up a creaking, failing 1950s regional super-bloc.

The United States, by contrast, does not need to keep itself together by funnelling federal money into youth orchestras in a desperate attempt to inculcate a sense of American-ness. And while many pertinent criticisms can be made about funding of the arts in America, it must also be acknowledged that many of the finest ensembles and artistic companies in the world – the Metropolitan Opera, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the New York City Ballet, as well as the feeder schools, companies and institutions which mould the next generation of artists – are based in the United States and do not have to suckle at the teat of taxpayer funding in order to survive.

When government does not try to do everything, private initiative and private philanthropy are often able to step in to do the job far more successfully and lavishly. They need only be given the space to do so – but the EU has no interest in getting out of the way and allowing the arts to flourish on their own, because then the results would not bear the imprimatur of Brussels and thus would have zero propaganda value.

Is the threat posed by Brexit to the European Union Youth Orchestra a good reason to scrap the whole endeavour and remain part of the EU? Of course not.

Has the European Union Youth Orchestra done anything to meaningfully shift the sense of European identity among those who are not directly involved, or the misty-eyed eurocrats who profaned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by co-opting the final movement as their anthem? No.

Does Britain’s departure from an explicitly political union necessarily or inevitably mean that artistic links between the United Kingdom and the continent must be weakened? No – or at least, the Guardian have given us no good cause to believe that there is a danger.

(Incidentally, Vladimir Ashkenazy himself lives in Switzerland, which is also famously not a member of the European Union, and yet seems to be able to maintain a fruitful international career including many concerts and residencies in Britain).

The whole Guardian article hangs together only if one is content to take the most superficial view of Brexit, skating around on the thin ice of metro-left shibboleths about how international cooperation and peace only exist thanks to the benevolent hand of Brussels. To take the threats spun from the Ashkenazy interview seriously, one must actually drink the Remainer Kool-Aid and believe that Brexit means isolationism, and in all its forms – economic, social, cultural. To be that cretinous, one must be an unapologetic bubble dweller, proud and stubborn in one’s ignorance of the opposing side.

But then that’s the Guardian for you: a newspaper tailor-made for poseurs who believe (or at least want to signal to their friends) that they already know and understand the nuances of every issue, and that the One True Way just conveniently happens to lean in the same stridently left-wing, pro-EU direction as their pre-existing beliefs.

Among Guardian journalists and readers alike there is zero intellectual appetite to actually get under the hood of any issue and talk about the meaning of democracy and self-determination, whether state funding or private philanthropy does a better job of funding the arts or any other substantial question that is ripe for debate. They just want to take a glib headline and serve it up as red meat to their metro-left, superficially culturally literate peer group (see last year’s uncritical, months-long homage to the NHS).

And so what could have been a useful jumping-off point for a real discussion about the future of the fine arts, the best way to foster cross-border co-operation and whether existing mechanisms of funding are a) effective, and b) a good use of taxpayer funds instead becomes just another wobbly-lipped ode to the Brave Artists Resisting Evil Brexit.

The only result of this “journalism” is that everyone is left slightly more attached to their pre-existing bias, while the opportunity to enrich the public discourse is squandered in favour of yet more left-wing, pro-EU virtue-signalling and alarmist Brexit catastrophisation.

Mission accomplished once again, Guardian. Great job.

 

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