On public performance

Concert-goers might find this of interest. And there’s a bit further down that’s important for harpsichordists.

Public performance of art music is a very risky thing. While we go to a concert with high expectations, usually, of at least part of it being a lovely experience, there are many bad concerts and that’s just the nature of the thing. Even great performers have bad concerts; memory slips, concentration lapses, clams all over the place, jet lag, illness, anxiety and tension – these are all normal and more frequent than you would think. It’s part of the business. You move on. It’s truly wonderful when it all comes together, and everything is beautiful and fascinating, passionate or relaxed, and if there are mistakes they’re hardly noticeable. It’s wonderful for everyone, everybody gets to go home really happy if not ecstatic. Me, I’m happy if 50% of the concert is like that (as a listener).

In the twentieth century concert goers and presenters worshipped a bit too much at the church of perfection, where accuracy and cleanliness are too prominent and hardly anyone seems to regret a loss of artistic exploration and risk taking. yes, I would like to have both, and everyone would, but that’s the way it is. It’s a challenging life for touring professional solo pianists, who perhaps have the toughest job of all; their craft requires a phenomenal level of education, preparation, and discipline.

There are so many stories about famous artists’ bad concerts; Sviatoslav Richter used to tour in many small towns before he hit the big cities, and I’m told he preferred them. Yes, he gave bad concerts. All the horror stories, I’m sure; I’m guessing that many of the messy ones were where an excess of passion and excitement produced little disasters, but then I’d probably be wrong. Many people I admire have mess ups, and some of them make me cringe and some of them I absolutely don’t care about, because the rest of it was so incredible.

Professional musicians today generally understand that it is very important to be well prepared, ensure your program falls within your abilities, and is musically interesting, to be rested and pace yourself. This and more is what you learn from your teachers. The concert, for your audience, is part emotional experience and part watching NASCAR or a high wire trapeze act. Be ready.

So now about harpsichord concerts. There are not many solo harpsichord concerts in the US, so there are not really any professional harpsichord soloists in this country. Most harpsichordists can’t invest the massive amount of time it requires to do that well. They are busy playing in ensembles and orchestras, maybe teaching – and those are very different things. That’s where the work is, and it doesn’t allow for solo practice of, let’s just toss some number out there, maybe 3 hours a day. They’re not playing one program in 10 cities over 2 months. They simply can’t be adequately prepared to our modern standard. This is true, to a different degree, for most harpsichordists everywhere; many of the fine ones are conducting and have little time for solo concert preparation at the right level. It’s a problem. To an extent, we should be understanding of their challenge; it seems only fair.

And people should understand how nonstandard harpsichords are. The keyboards are different sizes and topologies; the sounds of the attack and the nature of the decay are very different. Some of them don’t work well. I did a concert once, was only allowed to see the instrument the night before, the technician didn’t show up, the instrument was awfully dead and feeble and very hard to hear at the keyboard. It was extremely stressful. Could I have dealt with it better? Perhaps. Did I blame the instrument? No. Should I have cancelled? Probably. Some excellent musicians liked it a lot, one who never tells little white lies; others were disappointed.

So presenters avoid the instrument, concert fees are too low to support a truly high caliber soloist, and opportunities too few. So the harpsichord concerts there are tend to create a dim, sad expectation what a harpsichord concert is expected to be. What it takes to improve this is for presenters to find really fine players, at a fee level around $3 to5 thousand, where it should be and where it can sustain a professional career.


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