Friday, March 26, 2010

On Restraint (or Lack Thereof)

I'm sick.
For the 3rd time in the last month.
It hasn't been a good month in that respect.

So, I'm feely crappy. I sleep, drag myself to the shower and then decide "you know what? I'm going to lie of the couch and listen to some relaxing music." I sifted through my iPod and picked 1) August's Rhapsody from August Rush, 2) Massenet's Meditation from Thais and 3) Ravel's ballet, Daphnis and Chloe.

The Daphnis is actually what spurned this post. Maybe it's just because I was lying with my eyes closed the only task on my mind to listen to the music or maybe it was because I had a headache and had therefore tweaked the settings on my stereo to turn to volume down and flatten the dynamic range so the louds were softer and the softs louder... I don't know. What I do know is that the Daphnis just sounded so controlled -- too much in control.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear one of my favorite pieces, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, played by first a professional orchestra and then the Julliard Symphony in the same month. The Rite is an incredibly challenging piece and is seldom performed by professional orchestras. It is much more common as a graduate orchestra piece -- something for the soon-to-be professional musicians to sink their teeth into and put on their resume. I forget which professional orchestra I heard -- not the NY Phil... maybe the London or the Berlin.

What struck me about the two performances was that I enjoyed the Julliard Symphony significantly more than the professional orchestra! Sure, the professional orchestra's version as technically perfect -- all of the complicated rhythms and counter-themes interlocked exactly. All the dynamics were there, the tempos were accurate and the precision of the performance was incredible. Amazing what a group of professional musicians do when they really concentrate!

The Julliard Symphony was not technically perfect -- a flub here or two. The themes interlocked beautifully, the tempos and dynamics did more than just give a professional orchestra a "run for it's money." They were professional. These were the best musicians in the country playing at the peak of their masters degree education. Here were performances by two groups who should have been on a par but, in my opinion, the Julliard orchestra blew the professional orchestra out of the water!

Why? The Julliard orchestra got excited over the music. You could feel in the crazy, fast, intricate sections that the orchestra was just one hair's breath away from flying completely out of control. The rhythms caught with milliseconds to spare almost like when you have two interlocking cog-wheels but they don't interlock well and there's that second when you say "oooh, it's not going to work" and then the wheels catch and turn to the next cog. The tempos pushed just on the leading edge of the conductor's beat with the conductor holding his students in with the sheer mental will of making them follow him instead of the other way around.

The professional orchestra, as I said, played the piece flawlessly. I cannot find any way to fault the performance but to say that during their performance, I sat back and enjoyed. During the Julliard performance I was on the edge of my seat, gripping the armrests chanting in my head "yes, yes, get that! Yes!! eek eek eek... yes! got it! go!" with my jaw hanging open at the sheer enormity of the performance I was witnessing. My head was reeling with the Julliard performance for days.

That's what classical music is REALLY about.

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