Friday, May 25, 2012


I remember once reading that Segovia had taken the guitar and its music out of the salon and brought it to the concert hall, and having done so, restored it to legitimacy. I always had a problem with this.
It seems to me that there are many these days who make the mistake of assuming that size of venue is a measure of the quality of music presented there. The appearance of the guitar in solo performance on the great large stages of the world has, for example, in a sense legitimized it for many pundits as a "serious" instrument on which is performed "serious" music. This is taking the whole thing about size completely out of context, for no good reason. This is not to challenge the artistic validity of highly amplified rock concerts with elaborate stage shows, where small groups of musicians play to mega-audiences; they are a different animal and there is a different aesthetic at work there. What I am addressing is the issue of performance by small acoustic or lightly amplified ensembles (classical. jazz or otherwise) and solo performers. These performances were meant to be presented in small, intimate spaces. I don’t believe they were ever intended to appear in front of a large audience; I do believe their performance suffers, and they lose something in their musical message when they do so.
During the Renaissance and Baroque periods there was some very fine music produced by some of the world’s greatest musicians in some very intimate settings: Monteverdi in the court at Mantua, Luys Milan in the Valencian court , Robert DeVisee at Louis XIV’s bedside. There is a account of Francesco da Milano holding his listeners spellbound at a royal banquet in Milan. Selected Venetian cognoscenti were in the habit of retreating to a special salon deep in the Doge’s palace to hear musicians perform. The list of examples goes on. Probably the largest performances given to the general public–the closest things to today’s media extravaganzas-- were those of the great choral works performed in the cathedrals.
We seem to have forgotten that some music is better heard in small intimate settings. Performance practice throughout history bears this out. Performers and composers for solo guitar know this from direct experience and most players I know prefer to make music in smaller spaces. I have no doubt that, for the most part, the audience also feels the same: no one wants to sit in the back of Avery Fischer Hall when John Williams gives a guitar recital there. This crosses over to other musical disciplines as well. I would much rather see a jazz quartet at a small supper club than in a large concert hall. The tablaos in Madrid and the the gypsy caves and tavern back rooms of rural Andalucia are where you go to see and hear the heart & soul of flamenco plumbed to their depths. From a purely aesthetic point of view, solo and small ensemble players of any type of serious art music would have to be out of their minds to prefer playing to a large, faceless audience instead of in the intimacy of a small gathering. It’s not the same. They are not interchangeable.
This is especially true for modern "art music" composition. More often than not, modern atonal or dissonant works heard in a large hall sound like mush. I spent a season attending recitals of some very modern works at the Rose Studio in Lincoln Center. It’s a small room (150 people, max) where the audience sits right up close to the performers. Much of it was pretty involved music, by the likes of composers from Webern to Zorn, but it comes across beautifully when it’s up close and personal. The close proximity of the audience, indeed, drew them into the very act of performance itself. We, in a sense, became a part of it. This added dimension of involvement gave the music an immediacy that commanded my complete attention. I became totally immersed in what was going on and, consequently, understood the message. The music spoke. This would have been impossible in a large hall.
Trends in composition also indicate that many beautiful works were designed for small performance settings. Miguel de Fuenllana’s sacred "duos" for solo vihuela are perfect examples. These were small musical prayers set for performance in, at most, a small chapel. The most moving performance of these duos I ever gave was to a single listener, on a dark and silent late summer night in a backyard set back off the beach on the Long Island Sound. The only light we had was supplied by half a dozen candles set around the music. The music came alive in a way only such a setting could have engendered: quietly, delicately, magically, with a sense of space at once grand yet intimate. It was the performance of a lifetime; I don’t think I’ve ever played them as well since. My listener sat there entranced, bundled in a blanket, wide-eyed and silent. It happened again (though, personally, I don’t feel I played that well that night), at a performance one night on vihuela in a gallery on Lake Michigan in the fall, lights turned off, dozens of candles everywhere (something about those candles and this music), the walls covered with beautiful paintings. Though there was standing room only, you could hear a pin drop throughout the performance. People told me they’d never heard anything like it in that town.
These are the kind of places this music was meant to be performed in. These are the settings. Setting is so important for this kind of music (there is definitely an element of theater here); it brings out the best of what it is supposed to be. The experience of such performances, for both artist and listener, would be lost in a large venue. The aesthetic surrounding these kinds of performances is totally alien to the concert hall.
Today’s large venues serve more as an indicator of an artist’s popularity, if anything, than as a reliable gauge of the quality of the music being produced. It also serves as an indicator of the availability and demands of a mass market for what has become a very commercialized product.. The construction of these large halls was not to facilitate an increased quality of music, but to exploit the larger audience that a growing middle class was providing. They were what we would call today a new marketing device. The invention of new and louder instruments, like the piano and the modern classical guitar, and the composition of symphonic works for larger orchestras were a response to the growing size of available venues. It was not the other way around. While they may have appreciated the increase in independence and income, composers and performers were not necessarily looking for larger halls in which to make better music. Beautiful music was being written and played for all manner of instruments long before they entered the concert hall. In this sense, they never lacked for legitimacy, and functioned as vehicles for expressing the soul on the deepest levels long before their appearance on the stage at Carnegie Hall.
Personally, I’ll leave the concert halls to the symphony orchestra; that’s the only place they’ll fit in anyway. As a solo performer, I’ll take the intimacy of a small space any day...and the magic that is unique to an intimate gathering of souls in a beautiful place with an inspired setting, to swim in the pure sound of Music.

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