So, last night I was leading the orchestra for a concert opera performance (ie all the music, but not staged as drama, just performed as a concert programme for orchestra, choir and solo singers (and in this instance organ and offstage brass … )). In the interval I was buttonholed by an opera and I think more specifically Verdi enthusiast – a conversation in which I had to a lot of flying by the seat of my pants as I’m really no opera buff and Romantic grand opera all too often sounds just plain silly to me, but which also included her saying that the first violin part seemed to be quite difficult and I seemed ‘to be very into it’.
I didn’t have the heart to say to her that the main reason I was playing in such a visual and physical manner was to give as much lead as possible to the rest of the strings, given we’d had two short days’ rehearsal (about 12 hours in all probably) for a 2-hour opera! The interesting bit for me was trying to help with counting and entries (a) while being sure enough of being in the right place to actually improve the result and (b) without completely sacrificing the quality of my playing to the sort of conducting-with-both-hands-full activity that is usually thought of as leading an orchestral string section.
The sting in the tail of all this for a non-classical buff is that I was doing it while sitting down. One of The Filthy Spectacula asked me in all seriousness earlier this week ‘can you really play violin sitting down?’ – which I’m going to take as an indication of how thoroughly I put physicality and movement into playing with that band, as its idiom clearly demands (I should really get a radio belt pack for amplified gigs. The moment in the last gig I thought I might have pulled my lead wandering into the crowd during a solo isn’t one I’m keen to repeat). Personally, I think it is easier to play better standing up when I can, largely because my back seems to hold out much better that way; it’s obviously impractical for orchestras unless the conductor’s podium is going to be about 4ft high!
However, you do what you can with the circumstances, and it’s surprising how much rhythm and even dynamic information can be conveyed moving from above the waist only – and, apparently, how much emotion can be perceived by the audience, even if it was very largely artificial!
The question of sacrificing sound to movement, especially if the latter is thought of primarily as expressive, is an interesting one though. Biomechanically, a stationary instrument is a better starting condition for precise bow control, trouble-free left hand movement, a constant and good resonating context for the soundbox, and basically everything that enables better, more varied, more precisely controlled and more expressive sound production. But, ‘biomechanically’ deliberately implies that there is more to the situation than that. In practice, a better sound may well paradoxically be produced by a player who physically ‘gets into’ the music in terms of moving with phrasing and rhythm, using whole-body gesture to emphasise particularly loud notes, mimicking dynamic and mood with posture, etc. Presumably because the psychological engagement rather than detachment pays off more than the extra technical difficulties of near-constantly altering the physical relations and orientations of body to instrument to bow. Certainly being frozen to the spot so as to stay a constant distance from a recording mike is a constraint on me, though I’m used to being restricted by needing to see sheet music and perhaps a conductor, or even by a chair.
There’s a further point which would be very difficult to prove without scientific lab studies though, which is that for most audiences a slightly less well-played but much more visual and physical performance of the same music will be more convincing or enjoyable than a musically better one with total poker-faced technical concentration. And I mean this even of classical audiences, before anyone suggests snobbishness about rock gig crowds. For most purposes, the risk to tone, control and perhaps even tuning to moving at a level of energy and complexity significantly below that of ballet, breakdancing or rhythmic athletics is well worth it live. Beyond that it really depends on your abilities in all the fields concerned …
This is probably the best defence for the String Project’s gradual but determined move to minimalise use of sheet music onstage. I certainly would, and I think we all would, ultimately play better with parts there to fall back on, despite the extra ensemble engagement possible with clearer and more flexible lines of sight. But from video of our performances, it’s quite clear that doing away with the folders and music stands massively ups the game in terms of engagement and how easy it is to keep concentration on the band.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Even in music, the looks of the thing can be underrated.