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Sunday December 11 2005

Like Alan Little, I regularly read Doug Sandow.  In a recent posting, Sandow simply asked: Do orchestras play well enough?

Orchestral musicians are playing music that we think is great art. Do they approach it that way? Do they say to themselves, “I’m going to play this Mahler symphony so vividly that nobody can ignore how profound it is”?

When people scatter questions marks about like that, you just know that their answer is going to be: no.

image Last night I watched and listened to and marvelled at a recently acquired DVD of Claudio Abbado conducting, in August 2003, his handpicked and specially assembled Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a performance of, yes, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection Symphony, a piece I have always been lucky with, and you couldn’t hope to witness a more telling example of a group of musicians playing as if their lives depended on it and having the time of their lives.  Joy and professional pride just oozed out of them, all of them.  At one point, just as a for instance, Abbado and the first trumpet, trumpet on lap, were quite clearly sharing a little joke about something or other, even as Abbado was conducting everyone else a hundred per cent.  A little mistake the trumpeter had just made, perhaps?  I doubt it very much, but it was definitely something.  That both these super-musicians had mental energy to spare for such merriment (which was of course entirely in keeping with the spirit of the music being played at that moment – maybe they were just enjoying that particular bit) demonstrated both the total mastery of the task in hand being displayed by all concerned, and the sense of mutual respect – love is not too strong a word – being shared by them.  At the end, they were hugging each other.  You don’t often see that.  Not from an orchestra.

But it would be asking a lot of orchestral musicians to put as much of themselves into every performance as these brilliant musicians put into this one.

The problem about classical music’s great symphonic set pieces is that when they were first performed, the occasion was just that, an occasion.  If it wasn’t an occasion, it was not for want of trying.  The sheer effort and expense involved was phenomenal, and the audience had to damn well listen because their chances of hearing such a performance again any time soon were slim to zero, in most cases.  At best, maybe two of three more times in their lives.  No CDs in those days!  And the big point is: the music is like this.  It is music for an occasion, a big occasion.

With much of contemporary pop music, there is an air of routine, and I don’t mean this as an insult.  I merely note that the musicians are tuning in to the atmosphere that they will mostly be heard in, if all goes well.  Because if all goes well, they will typically be performing their piece to a bunch of teenagers in a bedroom for the thirtieth time, or to clubbers or revellers who will likewise have heard it many times before and will have other things on their minds.  If the tune is one of their particular favourites, they can talk over it now, because if they want to they can always play it again, another thirty times.

Is this, I wonder, part of the explanation of the repetitiousness of pop drumming?  It imposes on the event an air of emotional detachment, of hey this is only pop music, an atmosphere which pop drummers in particular are almost defined by, with that did-I-remember-to-let-the-cat-out? look that they make a point of adopting no matter how much tumult they are unleashing.  Take it or leave it.  It’s only rock and roll (or whatever).  Pop is, in the end, only a service industry, like gas or electricity or an internet connection, which you can switch on and off at will.

Back in the days when classical music performed a similar service for the aristocracy to the one that pop music now performs for us all, it too was rhythmically repetitious and routine in the same kind of way.  And because it was played by a reasonably small bunch of hired helpers, any track that appealed could likewise then be repeated at will.

But when classical music was in its pomp, in the nineteenth century – in the time of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, basically from Beethoven to when sound recording got seriously going – the grandest and greatest of it wasn’t like that at all.

This Lucerne Festival Mahler performance really was one hell of an occasion, if only because Abbado was, then as now, quite old and medically no longer to be completely depended upon.  Any given performance by him could, then as now, be his last.  And as far as the classical musicians of middle Europe are concerned, Abbado is It.  Not Rattle.  Not Barenboim.  Abbado.  Classical music conducting is rather like the Papacy, and at any one time there is either a Pope, or a big ongoing conclave to decide who the Pope is.  And just now, the Pope is Abbado. There was nowhere else on earth that these musicians would rather have been, and nothing else in the world they would rather have been doing.  So for them to have played as if their lives depended on it was not hard.  This kind of performance, simply, is what their lives are all about.  No “as if” was really needed.

Compare that with a performance of one of these great symphonies of the more routine sort, played by good musicians who constantly play with one another, conducted by a good conductor who constantly conducts them.  You get, constantly, this horrible mismatch, between the unique once-in-a-lifetime feeling of the music as written, and the extreme non-uniqueness of the occasion at which it is now liable merely to be played through.

This is a problem that must afflict all performers, especially those who do multiple performances of the same thing.  You are doing this damn show every bloody night for three months, and somehow you have to make it sound like a special occasion, because for your audience, potentially, that is just what it is.

But, it must be hard.  I can’t find it in me to be surprised that often, performers can’t bring it off.