Virtuosos a Dime a Dozen?
Posted 13 August 2011 - 05:52 AM
Posted 13 August 2011 - 06:58 AM
[Yuja] Wang's virtuosity is stunning. But is that so unusual these days? Not really. That a young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago. The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teachers, critics and commentators have noted the phenomenon, which is not unlike what happens in sports. The four-minute mile seemed an impossibility until Roger Bannister made the breakthrough in 1954. Since then, runners have knocked nearly 17 seconds off Bannister's time.
Something similar has long been occurring with pianists. And in the last decade or so the growth of technical proficiency has seemed exponential. Yes, Ms. Wang, who will make her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall in October, can play anything. But in China alone, in recent years, there have been Lang Lang and Yundi Li.
Good question, Mme. Hermine. This seems very applicable to ballet.
Nowadays, many well-trained male dancers can do, in purely technical terms, what sonly a few, Edward Villella for instance, did in the 1960s. But Villella in his prime generated excitement in the audience (anticipation?) from the moment he entered the stage. There were no dead spots in his performances.
I guess the article is expressing what happens inevitably when the extraordinary becomes ordinary.
We've all seen musicians who perform technical miracles without ever seeming engaged in or even alive to what they are performing. Dancers, too. They leave me cold and, for some reason, slightly angry. To give me the equivalent of an endorphin rush, I look for virtuosity that builds on technique but transcends it.
What are those things that separate riveting performers from even the most brilliant technicians? Passion? Stagecraft? Living on the edge? Risking everything? Something as simple as magination?
I confess to being a little confused about this topic and am looking forward to what others think about it.
Posted 13 August 2011 - 08:50 AM
You might divide pianists into two basic groups: those who have the technique to play anything and those who have all the technique they need, thank you, to play the music that is meaningful to them.
For me super-virtuousity tends to be homogenous and hard - the small scale theatricality and dancer's "touch" is missing. Those dancers don't have any latitude left to make interesting choices, to do the equivalent of throw away lines, plant interesting pauses here and there, etc.
Nice Andrew Clark interview here with Matha Argerich who was a stand out virtuouso of her time.
She says life is “more complicated” for young artists today, “because of the environment, the media, the agents. They’re told what to do and they are obedient.” But she also cites Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, 20-year-old winner of this year’s Arthur Rubinstein Competition. “Last night I listened to him again on YouTube – he has everything and more. What he does with his hands is technically incredible. It’s also his touch – he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.”
Strains of a Mood Music
Posted 13 August 2011 - 09:23 AM
Posted 13 August 2011 - 03:04 PM
P.S. Bergman used the 2nd movement music in Fanny and Alexander.
Posted 13 August 2011 - 03:34 PM
But audiences and critics tolerated a lot of playing that would be considered sloppy today. Listen to 1920s and ’30s recordings of the pianist Alfred Cortot, immensely respected in his day. He would probably not be admitted to Juilliard now. Despite the refinement and élan in his playing, his recording of Chopin’s 24 études from the early 1930s is, by today’s standards, littered with clinkers.
How much has the piano changed technically since the age of recording? I ask because one of the issues raised in the development of PNB's "Giselle" was how much of the notated steps should be included in the new production, as many had been done for dancers of very different body types and training than today's dancers, and the dancers were hesitant to do choreography in which they did not look as close to technically perfect as possible, landing and finishing in tight fifths, for example. In Doug Fullington's excellent first "Balanchine's Petipa" lecture-demonstration from 2007, devoted to "Choreography for Men", Lucien Postlewaite, one of PNB's most virtuosic men, demonstrated Prince Desire's Act III that was reconstructed by Doug -- the program says "Choreography: Nikolai Legat?" -- and he did it in two parts, it was so difficult, especially for a dancer of today. (He was also in the middle of rehearsals, as these presentations were done in the dancers' spare time.) It was one of the reasons that the production's male variation for the Peasant Pas de Deux looked less intricate than the notated choreography, which James Moore demonstrated at the Guggenheim Works & Process series and in the preview of that presentation given in Seattle.
One of the parallels about Cortot not being admitted to Juilliard now is that thousands of 16-year-old boys can do the virtuosic jumps that Baryshnikov did. I can't find the book, but I remember reading in "Striking a Balance", once of the dancers, maybe Lynn Seymour or Antoinette Sibley, spoke in the 70's about how the 32 fouettes, once a very big deal, were required on both sides to pass an RAD test.
Posted 13 August 2011 - 06:07 PM
The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time.
That observation applies to sport and dance as well. Stephen Jay Gould's remarks on the decline of the .400 hitter have some relevance here. Nobody's batting.400 any more, but there are far fewer bottom-feeders as well, because the general level of accomplishment has risen.
Posted 17 August 2011 - 08:40 PM
In Doug Fullington's excellent first "Balanchine's Petipa" lecture-demonstration from 2007, devoted to "Choreography for Men", Lucien Postlewaite, one of PNB's most virtuosic men, demonstrated Prince Desire's Act III that was reconstructed by Doug -- the program says "Choreography: Nikolai Legat?" -- and he did it in two parts, it was so difficult, especially for a dancer of today. (He was also in the middle of rehearsals, as these presentations were done in the dancers' spare time.) It was one of the reasons that the production's male variation for the Peasant Pas de Deux looked less intricate than the notated choreography, which James Moore demonstrated at the Guggenheim Works & Process series and in the preview of that presentation given in Seattle.
There were similar remarks passed about Carrie Imler's performance of the peasant pas in the lec-dem presented in Seattle -- the original choreography was tighter and faster than most contemporary dancers were comfortable doing. Part of it has to do with current tastes -- we seem to place more value on moving out and covering space than we do on complex interlaced steps directly underneath the performer, so that's what we teach and rehearse. It isn't that people aren't capable so much as we don't choose to emphasize those skills.
But this is where I'd like to argue for a larger definition of virtuosity. I don't think it's exclusively related to the Olympic virtues of "farther, higher faster" -- there's more to virtuosity than anatomical facility. To use the recent screenings of the 3D Giselle as an example many of us have seen, Sarafanov's performance as Alberecht was physically very adept -- he pulled turns and beats and extension out of a seemingly endless bag of skills. But however long his list of accomplishments, they didn't seem to be in service of the character in a dramatic sense or the logic of the choreography in a more abstract context. As far as I can tell from the commentary, and my own opinion, it wasn't until quite far into the second act that he actually seemed to be using all those steps to make something larger. Only then, for me at least, did he approach virtuosity in his performance.
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