Against Musical Fundamentalism

Many years ago, I was at dinner with an eminent violinist, who I will call “Mr. S”. He started pontificating with the greatest possible vehemence: how important it was to play everything that was there in the music. He continued by saying, “If you can’t do that, there’s a simple solution: just play another piece.” I told him, “Don’t ever come to any performance of mine, because you won’t like what you hear.” I should’ve asked him, “What happens if you can’t play everything in the other piece, and the piece after that? Will your repertoire be confined to Come to Jesus in whole notes with no dynamics?”

A contrary point of view was expressed to me by a Cuban conga player named Ray Barretto, known as the “Godfather of Latin Jazz”, during a recording session. I saw a figure in front of me in four quarter time that was:

♪♩ ♩ ♩♪|♪♩ ♩ ♩♪

as a repeating pattern. Naturally, I played exactly what I saw and Ray Barretto came over to me in a fury, brandishing what I hoped was not a knife. I pointed to the music and said, “That’s what it says!” Ray Barretto said, “That may be what it says, but it ain’t what it is.” What it was turned out to be a lovely, lilting Cuban melody that made absolute sense to anyone with a musical ear. In that one statement, Ray Barretto articulated something which I have always believed: that over anything else, the flow of the music with the sound that captures the ear and compelling phrasing is more important than all the pianos, fortes, accents, slurs, etc, that a musical fundamentalist can throw you.

Many years ago, I was playing St. Matthew’s Passion with the eminent Bach specialist, Helmuth Rilling. The concertmaster insisted on playing the gorgeous violin solo without vibrato or dynamics. I went up to him and asked him, “Why do you want to sound like a Suzuki student when you don’t have to?” He called over Rilling, who agreed with me, and then he played the solo magnificently for all to hear. Another similar incident happened when I was playing the Handel opera Alcina at the Lyric Opera with John Nelson conducting. He was very insistent that I play my two arias similarly with no vibrato or dynamics. These two arias were in counterpoint with two of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century: Renee Fleming and Natalie Dessay. I explained that if I had exactly the same material that was sung by these two icons of vocal art two bars later, why should I allow myself to be totally upstaged? If Renee Fleming vibrates, I also will vibrate on the same material and try to imitate her in every possible way. In the end, John Nelson agreed with me. But after the run, he told me: it would’ve sounded good his way also.

My personal philosophy is and has always been, “Sound as good as you can any way you can; and if you can’t sound good, don’t sound bad”. I give two examples from the highest level to the lowest that illustrates the efficacy of my philosophy. In 1971, I did a concert on Brahms chamber music in Carnegie Hall. One of the pieces was the Brahms Clarinet Trio, which I had to learn in a very short amount of time. In the second movement of this piece, there is a wild leap to a high F# that I could not make reliably . Even when I did make it, it didn’t sound all that good anyway. SO… I decided to play it an octave lower. If Brahms would have turned over in his grave for this offense against his score, I still would have said he could use the exercise. Long and short of it was, I was dubbed a “First-Rate Cellist” by the nastiest and most feared critic from the New York Times, Donal Henahan. How would I have been better off if I did the right thing and missed a shift, or sounded like shit trying to get it?

The second example involves a young man who couldn’t play the viola to save his life, but nevertheless, was in a quartet that I was coaching, playing the Schubert A Minor Quartet. In order to play all the notes, he had to play in second position, which was quite beyond him. If he played one note an octave higher in first position , he could do the phrase reasonably well. By doing this, he was able to pass muster in the concert, whereas otherwise, I would not have had a quartet.

One danger of trying to be right rather than sounding good is that even a very, very great artist can reduce the power of his performance. I witnessed this as a young man. One of my idols, who I will not name, was the most compelling pianist I ever heard at home. When he got on the stage, he became didactic, cutting off the life force of his inspiration in the service of playing everything exactly right.

These were the lessons that I learned over time. Sometimes, you can either be right or sound good. Your decision will always be respected. I make no apologies for any affronts I’ve inflicted on the musical scores in front of me during  my long career. I’ve always played what I believed was in the best interest of the vision that I had of the piece that was in front of me given the demands of the music and my ability to meet those demands.

Comments are closed.