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Monday 15th August 2016
Thursday 4th August 2016
I read the reviews of last Sunday’s Aurora Prom 21 in which I took part. It’s not that the audience reaction, surely the most faithful review of all, wasn’t enough, but that the press is where some controversy about the choice to play from memory as an orchestra is publicly scrutinised. Although most of the reviews are very positive, a few things have annoyed me and so I’d like to respond with my thoughts from the other side of the stage.
Firstly, it’s my view that training ourselves up to play symphonies from memory as a whole orchestra has been over-hyped as a feat of mental skill. It’s a departure from an orchestral world that is governed strictly by convention and as such is a natural talking point. But most people could do it with some hard work, which is what we put in. To suggest, as one reviewer did, that if Aurora really wanted to impress we should play the complexly scored Rihm (the concert opener) by heart is totally missing the point, as though the motive to play from memory is to impress people. To use the words ‘gimmick’ and ‘party-trick’ (two separate articles) is simply not a faithful reportage of what happened on stage, which was a group of people playing with full commitment, energy and love.
But why should a group do it in the first place?
To go briefly back to the Rihm: besides being outrageously hard to memorise accurately, it’s a different expressive language altogether. As a player it can feel almost like a kind of musical sport, each bar with a truckload of notes and instructions about execution. Beyond the challenge of nailing what’s in your part and keeping your place in sonic maelstrom there’s little room for the kind of expression and imagination that one can bring to a Mozart symphony. The Rihm no doubt has an expressive language of its own, but there’s a lot less room for interpretation in that sound world and compositional style.
And this is also why there is a point to playing a Mozart symphony from memory: unlike the Rihm, this is a musical language which in my view can suffer as a result of its reliance on the written page. Beyond being a necessary aid which gives us clues about compositional process, the score presents no more than a practical guide to the imaginative soundworld of its author. And a very imperfect one at that… Yet, from the earliest phases of our musical lives, it’s formulaic and often clearly counter-musical presentation is the medium through which we access and experience music as players. (To give just one example, the way the end of a phrase in music of the classical period commonly features a barline then a separate note as the end of a line of equal notes, i.e. visually the opposite of phrasing off.) This seems crazy when you consider the creation of music as led by the ears and body, not the eyes.
To be sure, I’m not suggesting we should all, always, play from memory. But the choice to do so in this case, as does an actor playing a role, or a soloist at a recital, is about detaching ourselves from a mere tool and a potential barrier: a barrier between the imagination of the composer and our own, (connecting the two is one of the great joys of music-making) and also physically between players on stage. What I found last Sunday and the other times I’ve played in Aurora from memory is that there was an enhanced sense of connection between the musicians onstage. We had to be fully committed because there was no other way: there is a nakedness playing without the part in front of you, suddenly it’s not just the sound you make but also your whole physical demeanour that is the vehicle for connecting with the audience, and to which the audience responds. And why shouldn’t it be? This music was written when there was no music other than live music, 100 years before recording was invented. It’s even possible that Mozart would have thought the whole concept of recording to be strange and disengaging because it makes the performative element in music indirect, it takes away the human-to-human communication which is such an amazing part of playing or hearing a concert. There is a magic in the transience of a great performance and the best ones, whether the performers have used the sheet music or not, have a sense of being spun in real time, free of the baggage that comes with a piece that’s been played for 250 years, recorded a thousand times and in constant shadow of a homogenised global culture that in so many ways doggedly celebrates conformity.
Initially the choice to play without music was an experiment, a high-risk one at that with the very first time at the 2014 Proms. But we found value in it for both the players and for the audience… or else we wouldn’t do it. Lessons learned include bringing the positive elements of playing from memory back to performances where we do use the music as a reference, to lift it from the page and transform it to a dimension that doesn’t include a sense of reading. Either way, the important thing is to be fully-engaged and to communicate. And if an honesty of intent isn’t clear when we take stage then we’re all at the wrong concert.
Friday 1st July 2016
Wednesday 29th June 2016
‘A snap from the stage at last weekend’s Glasto gig.. What a blast playing to 100,00 people, who turned out despite the mud to hear ELO on Sunday afternoon.’
Friday 27th May 2016
‘I just looked at some stats: the Es Muss Sein channel is being watched in 90 countries around the world and the 15 short videos have clocked almost 300 hours of watch time! Please help spread the word, this is a free resource. Here’s number 5 in the Bow Hand Training series:’
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