‘Classical’ performance practice has become a lot more varied lately. Traditional aspects – white tie, not applauding between movements of a long work, etc. – are not showing any signs of actually disappearing. But in the last perhaps five to ten years, other possibilities have become credible. Applauding after the first movement of a symphony or concerto is no longer necessarily a faux pas. All black, or even colour worn by non-soloists (gasp!), can be seen even on the professional concert platform.
It is, of course, Proms season. And this is often a good chance for the rest of us to get some snapshots of the current state of play in the top-end professional world. I’ve been making heavier use of the TV coverage (mostly via iPlayer) this year than ever before. And it strikes me that there is a slow change of mood going on which says that great music will speak for itself, even if not surrounded by an almost religious seriousness. I think the latter probably took hold as a reaction against the emotional extremes of 60s and onwards pop gigs (seriously, the screaming at Beatles live gigs is terrifying in recordings. The fans must have supplied the next general of metal screamers with throat haemorrhages pre-made). But one of my favourite moments of a very moving performance of Mozart’s Requiem was the conductor mouthing ‘Bravo!’ to the Scottish National Youth Choir at their first significant break from singing. And tonight I was watching Julia Fischer in Dvorak’s violin concerto (a new piece to me, incidentally), and this prompted several reflections on how musical performances are treated in this particular world.
Violin concerto soloists are in quite an unusually privileged position as classical musicians go. They don’t have to sit at or with their instrument (unlike, say, pianists or cellists), and tradition demands that they perform in general from memory (unlike the orchestra or, today, the conductor). Therefore, they are actually at liberty to move and perform visually as well as aurally. This notwithstanding, tradition (which, incidentally, in art music almost always goes back only about as far as the first world war) has seen all soloists positioned effectively behind the conductor, facing out into the audience (unless pianists, who face sideways because the instrument is easier to fit on stage that way) and unable to so much as make eye contact with any of their fellow musicians. Fischer had, I am very glad to say, decided to forego that. She didn’t have much space – maybe five feet by eight – but she certainly made use of it in a manner that would befit many a rock lead guitarist, swaying with her phrasing, at times playing almost under the conductor’s nose when particularly wishing to lock in on timing, emphasising mood with gesture and posture, and even in the second half of the piece allowing herself an occasional unconcealed smile of satisfaction.
The notion that the visual aspect is part of classical music performance would probably actually upset some older aficionados. There was a very substantial period when it was assumed that audiences did not watch but listen, and any visual interest was really a distraction rather than an enhancement. This period of playing arguably optimised for radio or record may have coincided with the some decades where musicians made the backbone of their money recording … However, for classical musicians as for anyone else in music, the money has gone out of recording and into live performance. The music industry may not have fully caught up with this, but essentially the position has swapped back round to what it was in about the 1920s: recordings are a means of promotion of the live performances that make people’s bread and butter, not the other way round. And this does mean, for classical musicians as all others, that there has to be something about being at a concert that is distinct from listening to any of half a dozen recorded versions of all the same repertoire for free and at whim (albeit compressed and interrupted by adverts, which is another story). The notion that it helps, rather than hinders, to engage with the audience, visibly be emotionally engaged with the music you’re playing, and be interesting to watch as well as listen to has arrived back after what is really, in art music history scales, a very brief period out in the wilderness as disrespectable.
Some closing thoughts: I’d rather Beethoven symphonies didn’t have to go back to being interspersed with sonatas for violin held upside-down and using one string only (as the premiere of no. 7 was). But I’d love to see an orchestra with the unselfconsciousness to mosh along to the last moment of said symphony as it clearly deserves. And I feel bad about myself for being put off by one violinist’s diamanté mute in one of the Proms performances I was watching this week …