Monday, October 31, 2011

if it ain't baroque

Reviews! Yes, reviews. Those things that aren't quite the news. I saw two concerts last week, one pretty awesome and the other quite not so. Let's dive right in.

Apollo's Fire, a Cleveland-based Baroque band, kicked off an international tour with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in an impressively mammoth concert on Wednesday at Duke. The ensemble, conducted compellingly by Jeannette Sorrell at the harpischord, played a mix of instrumental works and opera excerpts by Handel and Vivaldi. The instrumental pieces -- a couple concertos, a couple chaconnes -- sounded highly polished, with particularly searing performances of Vivaldi's flamboyant "La Folia" trio sonata (arranged by Sorrell for the full group) and his brusque, occasionally nutso double cello concerto.

And what of Jaroussky? It took him a little while to warm up -- his first aria had fireworks but not much power -- but by the later excerpts he sounded in full form, with a lovely, radiant tone. In Orpheus's song of loss, from Handel's Parnasso in festa, he summoned tremendous vocal forces to grieve, an aching meshing well with the ensemble's blooming accompaniment. His voice doesn't quite match the fullness of Andreas Scholl, my go-to countertenor, but Jaroussky has a certain appealing charisma and displayed a deft command of the striking ornamentation. His final two arias of the evening, from Vivaldi's Giustino and Tito Manlio (which were followed by several excellent encores) made a dramatic pair: the sagging lamento bass of "Vedro con mio diletto" with gleaming vocals, followed by the blazing coloratura of "Fra le procelle."


On Friday, we got a different kind of Baroque, with Gil Shaham's set of Bach solo works on the UNC campus. Initially, I was impressed: Shaham displayed enormous technical faculties from the outset in the Partita No. 3, with stunning pianissimos, and a continuous sense of line through each movement. But the sound was a little bland, with nothing to distinguish it besides its sheer perfection. More promising was the Sonata No. 3, in which Shaham turned inward, dwelling eerily on the obsessive minor see-saw of the opening, and nailing the uncannily dense fugue.

The program ended, after intermission, with the D-minor Partita, which culminates in one of those sums-of-all-Western-man-achievements, Bach's Chaconne. It was, to put it mildly, a musical disaster. The technique was all there, yes. But from the get-go, it felt rushed, lacking the absolutely necessary weight of such a lofty piece of music (yes, there are many ways to interpret a piece of music; no, you cannot make the Chaconne breezy). Shaham never probed into the music, never glanced at the form, and made no attempt to craft a narrative. No moments were felt; it was an exercise in empty virtuosity, with the only indicators of musical change being his somewhat strangely-placed dynamics (soft is not always profound!). That glorious major section--a kind of heavenly weeping--and its stately descent back down to gloomy earth completely lacked pathos. I didn't time it, but I imagine it must have been one of the quickest performances of the Chaconne on record. I actually wrote in my notes, "I HATE THIS."


Upon reflecting, I realized that the lack of musicality, the absence of insight, was probably present from the very beginning of the concert. I know and treasure the Chaconne, so I recognized when a musical crime was being committed. But, overall, Shaham's Bach lacked the basic musical necessities beyond superb technique.

So what happened?

This was the beginning of a four-city tour, which, by the looks of it, does not really hit any major landmarks for the classical music world. It looks like Shaham has done this program at Wigmore Hall and played the D-minor in San Diego already, but, as his website puts it, this is a "sneak preview." Is it right for top-tier musicians to use a paid event as a way to "try out" new repertoire? (A "sneak preview" is usually something that plays before the movie you pay to see.)

It's a tough one to crack, because I was probably one of a few members of the very, very enthusiastic audience (multiple standing ovations) to be disappointed. What is the role of the critic in this situation? To be the guy who says, "Well, no, that's not the Bach Chaconne. Sorry folks, you shouldn't be enjoying yourselves"? The violinist wants to play Bach; the violinist has clearly spent a ton of time rehearsing Bach (the performances were mostly flawless); the violinist wants to practice performing Bach in public; the audience loves his performance; the lone critic says nay. We are not talking about Lang Lang here, a performer whose status is constantly questioned; Gil Shaham is, as far as I know, universally praised by critics (the Lang Lang comparison is particularly apt here, since he is someone who constantly feels the need, despite his superstar status, to claim himself as a student; thus his "new Schubert phase" inaugurated last weekend).

But the thing is, there was something very wrong on Friday. I can only think of a couple times I have been so remarkably disappointed -- Kent Nagano's bizarro Metamorphosen and the heartbreaking failure of Superman Returns come to mind. It was the kind of shock/anger that made me want to rush to the Interwebs to express it. There should be a higher standard than this -- or, at least, a different standard.

One of my tenets as a critic is that technical perfection is a ridiculous and unfortunate expectation, one created by a century of increasingly polished (and manipulated) recorded music. To an extent, I do expect "perfect" performances out of the Chicago Symphony, Berlin Phil, or New York Phil -- I've heard them do it before, and I'm confident they can do it again. But from soloists or chamber groups, I want to hear something new, something interesting, something daring, rather than something technically flawless. If I wanted to hear the "perfect performance," I would go home and pop on a CD (okay, I don't own any CDs anymore).

So that's why Friday was so infuriating: technique seemed to come at the price of everything else. Those gorgeous softs seemed to be his only real way to express any emotion, or convey the complexities of Bach's forms, and they came somewhat arbitrarily. But (and this is a big but): can you do anything else with solo string Bach? I talked this out with my cellist-in-residence, who agreed that the performance was a remarkable feat technically but lacking musically. Shaham memorized a full concert of fiendishly difficult music, and he was out on a somewhat-oversized stage all alone in front of hundreds of people. If you're playing an accompanied sonata or concerto, there is a certain amount of lee-way in terms of technique -- drop a note here, have a memory slip there, and your partner can pick up for you and keep you righted. With solo rep, and with Bach especially, there is no safety net: a missed note, or, even worse, a memory failure, can completely derail the music. I'm not really sure, in this repertoire, if there is a way to put the musicality in front of the technique; you have to have the technique easily ready, and learn the musicality alongside it, or add it on later (I recommend the former).

We can imagine this kind of scenario: Shaham practiced the repertoire alone (remember, solo rep means there's not necessarily anyone in the room to tell you to play it better, especially if you're a professional), and wanted try it out on a "regional" audience before heading to the big leagues in New York or L.A or the recording studio. Is that right? We can't demand that every performance a person gives is the best one of his life, but is it right to make a place like Chapel Hill your proving ground? On the other hand, the audience was pleased; it was the New Yorker and the professional cellist who were disappointed. It's an unfortunate reality that critics don't discuss very often -- that the New York Performance, for most musicians, is the pinnacle of achievement, that those NYT reviews can really make or break a career. Even if the Carnegie audience might also have loved Shaham's Bach, any discerning critic would have cried foul play.

At the end of the day, all we can say is: it should have been better. And, hopefully, it will get better. Bach deserves it.


  1. Striking that it never seems to occur to you that you might be wrong - or, at least, that other listeners (those Carolina rubes) might have valid reasons for enjoying this beyond just "gosh dang it, that looks really hard!" I suppose critics need to have this confidence in their own instincts? Not saying I'd disagree with your reaction because I wasn't there - there certainly are a lot of HIPP specialists who play up a faster dance element in this Chaconne and maybe he was influenced by that; I don't like it that way, but it's a big step to say "Shaham never probed into the music, never glanced at the form, and made no attempt to craft a narrative." I'm honestly baffled that you can be so sure he had no idea what he was doing. Isn't it at least possible that you simply didn't hear what he was doing?

  2. Michael -- totally fair. I don't mean to suggest that an audience that loves something that I hate is idiotic, I'm way too young and inexperienced a critic to attempt that one (and people who do that are usually empty elitists). I just have never been so turned off by a performance, so frustrated by a performer's lack of engagement with such a great piece. Apparently other critics have been liking it. Shaham doesn't strike me as HIPP-influenced performer, but the fact was that that night, for me, the narrative wasn't there: it really felt like lifeless technique (though, as I said, that technique was pretty damn good). This was 100% a rant, but I think, especially given the enthusiastic response, the dissent needed to be printed.

  3. Thanks, Will - a gracious response. I definitely understand the experience you describe. Honestly, I don't think I could ever be a critic because I just don't have this kind of confidence in my own reactions, but I do believe critics are important and that they should be honest. It's certainly possible that Shaham is trying this program out and that he expects it to grow. On the other hand, I'm sure this is music he's played all of his life (whether he's performed it or not), so it's hard for me to imagine that he wouldn't have a strong perspective on the music. Of course, translating that perspective out to an audience and/or to people with already strong perspectives is another matter.

    This question of listener bias (especially relating to revered, canonical works) was obviously on my mind that day since I raised similar questions over at Matthew Guerrieri's place. I'll try to sort out my own ideas about this on my own blog at some point...

  4. I was at Shaham's Solo Bach Recital at Hong Kong today. My boyfriend had the same feeling as you did during the first half of the concert. After the intermission, Shaham gave the Hong Kong audience a brief talk--an apology on how his style of playing Bach might have, or will have, offended some of the audience, and why he consciously decided to play Bach in this distinctive way. He explained how he used to play Bach in a conventional style (he even gave us a little demonstration of his "conventional Bach", which totally reminded me of Perlman), and only until the last 5 years, he began to re-think about his interpretation of Bach. It's a well-known fact that Bach himself left very little instructions on how these solo violin pieces should really be played. The conventional style of interpretation were built on pinnacles set by earlier legends such as Milstein & Grumiaux. However, just because those recordings were absolutely beautiful and that we have become so used to it does not mean there cannot be another interpretation of Bach. What Shaham did was that he compared the pieces from the unaccompanied suites to the other works of Bach and Bach's contemporaries to try to figure out the composer's most original intention. One example Shaham named was going to the Minuet from the French Suite and the one from Notebook to Anna Magdalena for ideas on how to play the Minuet in Partita No. 3. Whether you liked it or not, I hope you understand that Shaham didn't just rushed through the piece without giving any respect to Bach. His choice of interpretation was conscious and very well thought-through. And although I didn't really like his Partita No. 3 except his Rondo (which was probably the most conventional piece of all btw), I greatly enjoyed the flush of new ideas and energy bought by his Sonata #2 & #3.
    I truly think Shaham has opened a door to a whole new arena of understanding Bach.