Chaconnes, Critics, Competitions 23 4 22

Posted on April 24th, 2022 by

Chaconnes, Critics, Competitions 23 4 22

Peter in a field in Bavaria (1993) Photo Bernd Noelle

It has been an interesting few days: my week was dominated, gloriously, by a short recording session in the Chiltern hills. I spent 90 minutes recording four takes of Mihailo Trandafilovski’s new, and wonderful, Chaconne for solo violin. The recording, in a 19th century village hall, along the ‘Ridgeway’, was bracketed by substantial walks, in, along that ancient path, from the East, and out, with a longer walk to the West, to finish. The day was full of Trandafilovski’s music, and I venture, his music was suffused, to my mind by the landscape and wildlife (Kites, Ravens, Primroses, and Bluebells) that surrounded it, literally and temporally.

There have been two subtexts to the week; two conversations, rattling on in our home and with friends, on FaceTime, Zoom and even the ‘phone.

The first concerns competitions. Every so often, I am contacted by the organisers of competitions and asked to serve as a jury member (interesting choice of moniker). I always demur. This week, it was a violin competition, and there was a conversation at home, about my position. It is not that there was any disagreement with my position, but that my wife is hard-wired to query habituated behaviours and opinions. This is something I appreciate – sometimes more in the breach than the observance-it means that I have no chance to get lazy.

The second subtext to the week has been critics: my father-in-law has written a new novel, which arrived this week from US. The arrival of the book was closely followed by a review from an American newspaper, which took a number of rather pat positions from which to attack the book. This stimulated yet more conversation in our household. As a performer, live and recorded, I am always asking myself the question as to why I read my own reviews (in my experience, the positive ones can be corrosive, the negative useful). But the question remains: why write them at all? I think that every artist who is reviewed, asks this. We are not sure what role the critics play with regard to our disciplines: consequently, we are forced to mull over the question regularly.

At the heart of all of this, the simplest of queries. What does Art, and by extension, artists, do? As one of them, I can offer an observation, that there is considerable distance between the understanding of our activity and the reality. It was illuminated by my time in front of the microphone this week.

To begin with a general assumption; that we artists know what we are doing, and that we work to a plan. My generation of performers grew up questioning something often seen as fundamental to the notion of classical music in the second half of the twentieth century – The notion of interpretation. As a young artist, I struggled to understand what this meant. There were certain performances, live and recorded, which were supposed to embody this notion, and I paid attention, but it became clearer and clearer to me that the readings which I loved the most, were those, interventionist or not, which gave the music itself the greatest chance to speak, to dance, to sing. What I loved about Jascha Heifetz playing Bach’s C Major Solo Sonata, or Ginette Neveu playing Debussy, was that they cleared a path to the music itself, in their own, very particular ways, without a doubt. And what struck me then, as strikes me now was the way that they found and revealed this path, was to (appropriating another great musician) ‘walk the line’.

For the overwhelming emotion experienced by performers, is delight, and sometimes, despair, as to where they end up, when they follow the course of a piece of music or play. The extraordinary experience of Fiona Shaw performing The Waste Land at Wilton’s Music Hall, was a case in point. It was clear that, by the time she reached the reiterated HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME, about halfway through this extraordinary rendition of the great poem of the mid-twentieth century, that the piece, the performance, the author, the listeners, the room, the night, were operating her, that she was the vessel for something beyond all of us. It flowed through her, and the work which would have gone into this magisterial reading, enabled that to happen.

And this was the case, this week, without a doubt, with Trandafilovski’s Chaconne. And it was all the more the case because the work is very new, and consequently, new to me. There is absolutely no chance that I could had time, to generate an ‘interpretation’ between the arrival of the piece and recording it.

But first let us turn to the question of judgement, of contests and music. I know that the element of competition has been fundamental to Art from the outset. Pindar made a whole career, writing odes to the victors of wrestling matches, horse races, the Olympic games: but he also wrote the following, in C M Bowra’s wonderful translation:

‘We can hold a mirror to fine doings
In one way only,
If with the help of Memory in her glittering crown
Recompense is found for labour
In echoing words of song.’

How can one artist, sit in judgement on another? What is being judged? The question is profound, and disturbing, because any answer strikes to the heart of what we are or are not trying to do.

I grew up in the ‘English classical tradition’, meaning that, early on, I read Homer, Sappho, and Vergil at school, and studied Keats, Tennyson, Eliot, and Plath. And yes, I know that little of what I cited is not in any way English. Of course, I was at the same moment immersed in Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Bartok, and Michelangelo, Turner, Lorrain, and Friedrich. But at no time, did any teacher invite me to criticise these works. It would have been as ridiculous, as when opening one of the 15 Shakespeare plays we read at school, to have said, ‘lets talk about whether this is a good play or not?’ Shakespeare, like all the others, was, is responsible for who I, we, are.

To sit in judgement on another artist implies having a higher level of understanding than they do, which is patently ridiculous. It also suggests that one human’s life experience emboldens, enables them, to say ‘greater’ things than another. The Psalmist warned against just such hubris, albeit, with a degree of self-irony:

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.

As a boy, I preferred the contemporaneous version by the Ely-based composer John Amner (1579-1641):

Lord, I am not high-minded: I have no proud looks. I do not exercise myself in great matters: which are too high for me.

It seemed that, the wonder of art is that it, as Pindar noted, holds a mirror to fine doings, reflects the human experience, that it is shared. How do you put a score to that? My friend, the composer Elliott Schwartz, was fond of John Cage’s motto:

‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.’

In the shadows here lurks the question of the nature of beauty, which may or may not be essential to what art, expression, is. And, as the Romantics never tired of pointing out to us:

‘Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe /Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,/ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all /Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”’

Because, of course, Keats is not speaking here, but passing on what he imagines an Attic vase, might, or might not be saying, the Classical Ideal at the root of the Romantic Movement. Following Keats, or that Grecian Urn, Art, and for the purpose of this paragraph, music (violin-playing) has a duty, to speak truth. And the truth, in any moment of music, of poetry, a brush stroke, is in what is sung, said, or painted. How does one sit in judgement on that, give it a score, compare it to another’s truth, give them a ranking?

Which brings us back to the ‘greatness’ question. When I was much younger, I watched a TV interview with the architect and artist Sir Hugh Casson. As he talked, he was working on a delicate pen and wash of a clinker-built rowing boat. It was beautiful in its simplicity, and his restrained command. His words, while sketching, have stayed with me ever since:

‘I never pretend that I am going to push my pen through the paper to some aw-ful well of profundity behind.’

All the while, producing something of grace and beauty.

What links the crisis, and it is a crisis of judgement, shared between the relationships between competitions, criticism, and the arts, is the question of a ‘grand plan’, even of significance, of heft, of greatness.

Let me return to my recording session for a moment or two.

The grit in the oyster, which had resulted in the pearl that is Mihailo Trandafilovski’s Chaconne was a conversation that he and I had on New Cross Gate Station, at 8 30 in the evening on the 17th of February – two months ago. I had just given a truly insignificant concert. There was a tube strike, which meant that very few people had wanted to venture to Deptford to hear a solo violin. But a salon-size group had listened to Chaconnes, by Biber, Baltzar, and Isang Yun – his astonishing Königliches Thema (1977). It’s a piece I am, frankly, terrified of. After the concert, Mihailo and fellow-composer Roger Redgate talked about this wonderful work. And on the station, taking the train home, I said to Mihailo:

‘You should write a Chaconne – I don’t think you’ve ever done one.’

He looked interested. Now it is worth saying, that I have played dozens of works by Trandafilovski – recorded his two concertos, violin-piano sonata, quartets, trios, duos, and many works for solo violin. And I play in a quartet with him. He has moulded my hands, ears, and violin, to his imagination: I am, to a degree, his creature. We had planned a recording session for April, to record a big solo viola piece. However, three weeks ago, I found myself on a cruise boat sailing through the Rhine Gorges. An E-mail arrived from Mihailo, with a ‘chaconne’. I got the piece printed out, and went to work in my little cabin, as the castles of Marksburg, Rheinfels, Rheinstein, Katz and Stolzenfels glided past.
The piece was beautiful, and there was the shock of recognition, the feeling that I already knew it. This is not uncommon, and is, in some ways the ultimate compliment. The new work spoke to the tradition from which it came, from Bach, Bartok, Ligeti, Biber and Yun, whilst utterly true to Trandafilovski. There is no surprise here, J M W Turner’s Dido Building Carthage relied on Claude Lorrain’s sunsets over imagined classical cities, as much of Catullus would have been unthinkable without Sappho. In addition, if you collaborate closely with any composer (living or dead), over many years, each new piece awakens aspects of who you are; percolating, germinating, in concert with the possibilities inherent in that artist’s imagination. We slotted the very new piece into a recording session planned for just two weeks hence of my getting the piece. The resulting reading, or readings, in front of the microphone, would be remarkably close to, even part of the process of idea-composition-study-collaboration. Which brings me back to the critics.

For my generation, who had young children in the first decade of the 2000s, one piece of writing (and delivery) sums up the quandary, and the question around all criticism, of whatever ilk. ‘Anton Ego’, the food critic from Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, given wings by the inimitable music of Peter O’Toole:

‘In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends’

Thousands of ‘creatives’, sitting next to their children in the cinemas (my son, Marius, was nine), found themselves figuratively and literally punching the air at this moment. At last, someone had said it, and to millions of people.

Not long after this film appeared, I ventured the fact, not opinion, online, that not once, in decades on stage and in front of the microphone, had one critic of the many who have offered every tenor of opinion about my work, asked me a single question about what it is that I do. This resulted in a minor squall of ‘that can’t be true’ reactions in my in-box, and even a couple of interviews about the issue.

Because what has struck me, repeatedly, about good and bad reviews, and I have had some (justified and not) stinkers in my time, was that many of critics manifest a profound lack of interest in what artists do. This is not to say that I disagree with their opinions, but that, there is little understanding of the paths along which artists are led, by their work.

The review of my father-in-law’s new book seemed to fall into that category. In an ensuing on-line back and forth, the reviewer, not addressing the author, but one of his readers, offered her personal ‘critic’s credo’:

‘Reviews aren’t personal for the critic (though I understand why they feel that way to the author). My duty as a critic is to the readers of the newspaper, not to the authors of the books I review.’

I hesitate to offer an opinion here, but it seems to me, that Anton Ego had a better handle on the ‘duty of the critic’ than this. The American music critic Anne Midgette is, in my experience, spectacularly honest, well-informed, and fair. She has given me brickbats and praise in equal measure, so I feel comfortable offering her version of her ‘duty as a critic’, from her blog as an alternative, and certainly, close to Ego’s confessional:

‘The role of a critic is to cover a field. This doesn’t mean simply pandering to popular taste. It means doing one’s best to convey a sense of what is going on in a given discipline by writing about every possible side of it. It means trying to convey a perspective that a reader who doesn’t spend every night going to concerts/plays/films may not be able to gather himself; or offering a thoughtful take that might stimulate a reader who does go to everything to see something in a different light.’

Very few artists would have a problem with this position. We welcome it and wish there were more.

It is interesting to see, which reviewers and critics have noticed how the territory has changed in the age of the Internet. On a daily basis, we are taking notice of consumers’ reviews of films and food, spigots and widgets, on the online platforms where we shop; we have learnt to trust and filter these. In some cases, the ‘users review’ has become the go-to, which means, that criticism in the Fourth Estate, where it survives, has taken a good hard look at itself, worked out what it can offer, in concert with this rich stream of opinion online.

Of course, we artists have to face one truth, which is, that as soon as something goes into the public sphere, we have no control over what it is, and how it is used. When I made my first commercial recording, of Cesar Cui’s 24-piece cycle Kaleidoscope, in my mid-twenties, I did not expect to find myself listening to it whilst waiting at the luggage carousel at Minneapolis-St Paul Airport two decades later. Should I have been offended, when my release of delicate 17th Century preludes for solo violin was recommended by one reviewer as Christmas music? – of course not. By the same token, we artists have no implicit right, to condition reactions to the work that we put ‘out there’. However, it is reasonable to ask that work is not misrepresented, or that the skill of the executant or writer is brushed off, as it were, as a given, for which the artist can lay no claim. Which brings me back to competitions.

Many years ago, I was on a panel for music was for a composers’ award. I was already feeling queasy, having recused myself from discussing works dedicated to me, and having to listen to opinions, as to whether they were ‘good writing for the instrument’ from people who had never held a violin. But the last straw involved a chamber work, written by an established, older composer. The piece was beautifully written, a model of what could be done for the medium. But then, a bright spark on the panel opined:

‘Well, we expect […] to write well. Is it the best thing […] have done?’

To set a higher standard for a composer because they had a set of skills in advance of a neophyte, was clearly nonsense. This was brushed aside, as was my strongly held opinion that this was the only piece on offer I wanted to play.

For this particular cavil was also aimed at my father-in-law, that he, of course, was a skilful writer, ‘smooth’ was the word used. His very skill, his immaculate technique, honed over decades of writing, and broadcasting, was used as a weapon against him. This reminded me of the problems faced by the 19-year-old Jascha Heifetz, on his first visit to the United Kingdom, where he came to play the Elgar Violin Concerto and to collaborate with the composer. This was the visit where the George Bernard Shaw, who as ‘corno di bassetto’, had earlier enjoyed a long career as the greatest British music critic, wrote to the young violinist a month after his London debut on May 5th, 1920:

“If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed instead of saying your prayers. No mere mortal should presume to play so faultlessly as that.”

Heifetz presumably took the advice, as he died just two months short of eighty-seven, in 1987. But other British critics were less philosophical and suggested that Heifetz had misunderstood the very essence of the Elgar concerto, by having the temerity to play all the notes. They may not have used the poisoned ‘smooth’, but their inference was similar to the attack on my father-in-law’s book.

Which brings us back to the process of Art being made or done. From long, happy, experience of collaborating with composers of all ages, I can say, that what which fascinates and excites most of them, is what happens when their music is played. This ‘what happens’ is a broad subset, ranging from what the music does to the performer, physically and emotionally, through to what the interaction with the performer does to the music, by way of the interactions with the audience, the instruments, the performance spaces, indeed, all of the media which are part of the process of art happening. This is no fixed quality or target: there is no ideal reading or interpretation, just, quite literally, ‘playing’.

And so, it was with the new Chaconne. This quarter-of-an-hour-long work seemed to lend itself to being recorded in one take, so, when sound had been ‘found’ in the new venue where we were recording. I played the piece through, in one go. It went well, and took about 15 minutes. I played it four times: each reading after a little discussion, proved different. After the last, the composer looked up, smiling.

‘We’re done. Would you like a cup of tea.’
‘Ooh, yes please.’

I poured my tea into my thermos, said my farewells, and walked out into the spring sunshine and birdsong outside. When I got home, I listened to the four takes: they were all interesting, and all ‘took the line for a walk’ in different, fascinating ways. None of the resulting versions are right, or wrong, and they are nothing like what will happen, the next time I perform the piece, in a different space, on a different day.

And this is my point. This is how Art is made. We begin with an idea, even a ruse, which finds its way into a sketch, to a score, and then is studied. Then there is a performance, or a reading, peculiar to the time and place where it happens. Adventure is found in the journey from one place to another, in this case, from the composer’s imagination to the listeners’ ears and heart. Nothing else matters.

In his 1911 Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni quoted Leo Tolstoy, illustrating his understanding of the ideas to which art, and of course, music, should aspire. It is as true, and as frustratingly evanescent now, as it was then:

‘” Neither on the lake, nor on the mountains, nor in the skies, a single straight line, a single unmixed colour, a single point of repose: – everywhere movement, irregularity, caprice, variety, an incessant interplay of shades and lines, and in it all the reposefulness, softness, harmony and inevitableness of Beauty.”’

My friend, George Rochberg went a stage further, finishing his ‘continuation’ of Busoni, The Aesthetics of Survival by reaching for Robert Browning:

‘Making the world a better place is not a project for the artist. His project is to express the fire in the mind, to make, as Robert Browning said, beautiful things that “have lain burningly on the Divine Hand.”’

Such a project, be it in the world of comedy, tragedy, song or dance, landscape, or portraiture, is, somewhere criticism and contest, might carefully consider their value.




End-notes in preparation

[1] Nemean Odes, VIII, II, from C M Bowra, The Odes of Pindar, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1969

[1] Psalm 131, Verse 1-2, King James Bible

[1] Grecian urn etc

[1] Ratatouille 2007


[1] ” (Collected Letters, ed. Dan H. Laurence, New York, 1985).

[1]New Esthetic.Dover P 96

[1] The Aesthetics of survival, P253