I rarely blog about classical music. It feels too much like my day job, while this blog is my repository for more random thoughts, for musings not necessarily connected to my everyday life. But I went to a concert over the weekend featuring two sixteen-year-old soloists in Tchaikovsky concertos, and all I could think about was how problematic it seemed to display child prodigies at all. The whole enterprise seemed dodgy.
And I didn’t want to take up half my concert review with my own personal rants about concert programming. I mean, it’s a small newspaper printing a review of the local orchestra’s concert. It just didn’t seem right for me to turn my column inches into a soapbox.
And then I remembered: I have a soapbox already! I haz a blog!
So, here’s what struck me about the concert.
There seems to be no good way to review young artists playing with a professional ensemble. To look at them purely as child prodigies turns them into a spectacle. It discredits their musical commitment and interpretive ideas. I thought about how damn serious I was when I was 16, full of angst and in love with playing Brahms (okay, not much has changed there). They’re people, not automatons. They care, even if they don’t have the maturity that would turn their performance into an expressive revelation rather than a display of skill.
This concert really was about spectacle. The audience was so thrilled with the teenagers’ virtuosity that they audibly gasped and murmured during the concertos. They were so unable to contain themselves that they leaped to their feet after the first movement, applauding and cheering, while dozens of musicians on stage sat and waited to continue the performance.
I didn’t get the sense that artistic expression mattered at all to the audience. They were impressed by the fast runs and double stops and crashing chords. It was entertainment, and it felt cheap. I don’t go to a classical music performance to be entertained like a bored child. I go to hear something challenging, engaging, and honest: something worth hearing. I listen to music because I want to hear an artistic statement. This wasn’t about art.
Yet if I were to look beyond the child prodigy element and measure these sixteen-year-olds against the standards I’d apply to more experienced musicians, I would probably find the youngsters lacking in maturity, insight, and/or depth. The performances last weekend were musical, but they lacked emotional focus. If a musician ten or twenty or fifty years older than these soloists had given the same performance, I’d be disappointed. I expect virtuosity from a professional musician engaged to play a certain piece. I don’t gasp in awe at the existence of all the notes in the concerto; it’s that person’s job to perform that particular piece. Instead, I look for the musician’s personality in the performance, the pacing, the balance of each chord, the articulation and phrasing, the dynamics and shape of every phrase and every movement and the entire piece.
Mastery of all those elements takes time, and it demands a certain amount of maturity. Sure, there are plenty of performances by young musicians that are fresh and dynamic and exciting. Maturity doesn’t mean stodginess or predictability or boredom (please save me from any of those things). But a great performance considers the whole piece and shapes every note and every phrase accordingly. I haven’t yet heard that from anyone who isn’t even old enough to vote.
So we’re back to where we started: if the performers are so young that they haven’t yet had the chance to build their musical personalities and interpretations, then we’re left gaping at their nimble fingers. And to gape is to belittle what I see as the point of musical performance.
To be fair, there are good things about engaging young performers. It’s a great opportunity for the kids themselves. And the audience, except for curmudgeons like me, loved watching them. So it seems fair to ask myself: if the performers are happy, and the audience is happy, what’s my problem?
Either we gawk at the performers because their youth makes their technical abilities seem amazing, or we notice how far they still have to go in their artistic development. And neither approach seems fair to them, or to us.