A classical music lover's plea: Can we please try the road less taken?

Diaz, Denk et al at the Perelman

5 minute read
Denk: Master of his own little world.
Denk: Master of his own little world.
I suspect that I am not alone when I think the same way that Clara Schumann did when, after being the first to hear the Brahms' G Major Violin Sonata, she wrote to him (I paraphrase): "I feel that no one will ever love it as much as I do." We all love Brahms. We all love Mozart. And Dvorak. No one is alone in that regard.

But sometimes I feel that I am alone when I feel slight disappointment on seeing those same old boys' names on the program. (I know I'm not alone, but that's how it feels.) Everybody seems to revel in those predictable dominant-tonic progressions, those beautiful melodies, all that Romantic emotion. But it's time to wake up, everybody. We are in the 21st Century. Stop pretending that the last 100 years didn't happen. There is a whole world out there!

Looking through the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's hefty program book, it's encouraging to see that a good portion of the concerts feature some sort of Philadelphia premiere or at least a post-World War I composition. But almost invariably, these pieces are flanked by old 19th-Century warhorses, as if to keep the audience from fleeing any music that will challenge their fragile ears and habituated sensibilities.

Let me reiterate again how much I love Mozart and Brahms. But having heard these composers hundreds of times in recordings, having practiced and rehearsed their music for hundreds of cumulative hours, and having heard them featured live in hundreds of concerts, I think I might be starting to tire of the standard repertoire. Seriously, there are other composers out there! Even if they may not be as great as those unparalleled geniuses, they're certainly worth hearing!

How many times did they rehearse?

Closed-minded audiences are as much to blame as lazy performers. Especially for seasoned musicians such as Jeremy Denk, Roberto Diaz, Andres Cardenas and Efe Balticigil, I'm sure it was much easier to put together a Mozart Piano Quartet that they've all played before (I wouldn't be surprised if they only rehearsed it once) than to learn a contemporary piece.

Now, they may argue that, although the notes and rhythms may be easier, the quest for musical perfection is more difficult in Mozart than in any other composer. But they'll know that it's a lie— an excuse for their lack of motivation to tackle new music that is different and therefore challenging.

Concert presenters are also at fault for encouraging this practice, but they can hardly be faulted. They know well that challenging music doesn't sell as well as the tried-and-true. They can't be expected to subsidize difficult music while it's already quite a feat trying to keep an arts organization in the black.

But most to blame are the academic composers of the 20th Century. In their smug assertion that incomprehensible music somehow makes them seem smarter and therefore worthy of university positions and grant money, they have turned several generations away from new music. But that delusion is quickly coming to an end, as a new wave of composers are finding ways to make new music beautiful, meaningful, fun, interesting, original and current.

I'm not saying, forget our roots and the old masters. I am saying, inject new blood into the classical music world. Perhaps it will help bring hair colors other than white and gray into concert halls. Perhaps it will help make music-for-art somewhere near as viable and relevant and to the real world as music-for-profit. Rant over.

Playing Mozart unapologetically

Whew. Now that I vented that off my chest, I can talk about the actual concert, which was pretty wonderful. Mozart was played with a passionate smooth Romantic sound, in true Philly fashion, as you would expect from two Philadelphia Orchestra principals. It's always nice to hear Mozart played unapologetically— unlike some of the overly careful "period" approaches.

One of the most rewarding aspects of going to a chamber music concert is that you can clearly hear and see all the various elements unfold onstage in real time: each musician's personality, preferences and sound, the agreements, the disagreements...

Pianist Jeremy Denk played freely, clearly, full of character, in his own little world, but checking into the ensemble with an alert glance every few measures. Cellist Efe Balticigil tried his best to have fun and turn up the energy. Violist Diaz and violinist Cardenas largely ignored him, arguing with each other about the tempo all night long.

A man who wails on that cello

When the less popular of Dvorak's two piano quartets was performed (adventurous programming!), the dynamics among the performers were much the same. Compared to the Mozart, the Dvorak was longer, even more romantic, scratchier, and with even more enthusiasm from Efe.

Speaking of Efe, he can really wail on that cello— he's capable of drowning the rest of the ensemble if he wants. And speaking of a strong sound— Diaz seems capable of eking out with two inches of bow hair more sustenance than some string players can produce with an entire bow's length. And what a sound it is: a rare and rich alto tone devoid of that nasal metallic boxiness that afflicts so many violists.

Diaz performed the Brahms Violin Sonata in G major on the viola, transposed to D major. At first, it's irritating to hear such a familiar piece in a different tonality. But once reoriented, it works quite well for the viola, although it feels like a different piece. Hearing the melodies, arpeggios and chords in different registers than I am accustomed to, I discovered new surprises and decorations that I hadn't paid attention to before. Then again, some of the passages that I expected were not quite as clear as I was used to. But that's OK— why brave the Philadelphia winter and go to a concert just to hear what you expected to hear?

To read a response, click here.
To read a response by Tom Purdom, click here.

What, When, Where

Roberto Diaz, viola; Efe Balticigil, cello; Andres Cardenas, violin; and Jeremy Denk, piano: Mozart, Dvorak and Brahms. January 14, 2009 at Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: (215) 569-8080 or www.pcmsconcerts.org.

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