The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: “All Beethoven is hard to play” and other lessons I learned last week from student concerts

April 15, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend, I spent most of Saturday attending two different but outstanding student concerts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With the end of the semester only a month away, it is getting to be the time when lots of student performances are available.

Student concerts not only allow you to hear some great music, they also teach you things, especially if you yourself are a serious amateur musician.

 So here are some of the lessons I took away from the winners recital of the 26th annual Beethoven Piano Sonata Competition and form a performance by the Concert Choir, which has just returned from a tour of the Midwest and East Coast.

Great talent is just natural and beyond explanation. Don’t question it; just recognize it, enjoy it and admire it.

Professionalism is learned and practiced, just like any other skill. Despite some memory slips and wrong notes, students kept playing right through to the end, with swearing and apologizing. That takes a lot of nerve and courage. It also tells me that it takes discipline and practice. HOW you perform must be practiced as much as WHAT you perform. And not even the best professional is at 100 percent all the time. It’s hard to accept, but true.

The talent to PLAY music and the talent to PERFORM music in public are not at all the same talent. Many of us who like to play and who play well would like them to be identical. But some temperaments are just not made for public performing while others are. Some improve with time and exposure, while others don’t; and still others are just plain naturals. (Jeongmin Lee delivers a transcendent performance of Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 11, below.)

All Beethoven is hard to play. That’s why even many great pianists, including Martha Argerich and Leif Ove Andsnes either don’t perform or record the sonatas or come to them later in their careers. (Undergraduate senior Hallie Houge performs Beethoven “Pastorale” Sonata, Op. 28, below.)

Playing soft Beethoven is even harder to play than loud Beethoven. The quiet arpeggios in the contemplative opening of Sonata, Op. 110 (by Margaret Runaas, below), require more finesse than the arpeggios in the fiery “Appassionata” Sonata, Op. 57.

Trust the music and the composer. Play straightforwardly, more or less, and you will be expressive. If you try too hard to be expressive, you will more than likely get in the way of the music. Almost always, it seems to me, you play who you are and what you are. Trust yourself.

Instrumentalists should look to singers and choruses (like the Concert Choir, below)as models. The SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) divisions are much like chamber music groups. And piano music is like a choir for two hands or chamber music for two hands. That helps you to delineate voices and parts more clearly, and to know when to separate and when to blend.

Good musicians need good instruments to realize their potential. You don’t expect racing drivers to drive broken down wrecks. Why do we expect otherwise from musicians. Morphy Recital Hall, needs a new piano – one as good as faculty get to use in Mills Hall. Or else move the Beethoven sonata concert to Mills. And if you have a budding musician at home who looks to have talent, get the best instrument for him or her that you can afford. It will pay off.

There are a lot of talented young musicians out here – probably too many to earn a living as performers. So there will be a lot of talented young music teachers out there, and a lot of scientists and humanists, doctors and lawyers and business people, who will be excellent amateur musicians their entire lives. The future of music looks bright good – if the Budget Barbarians, the Republicans and the Pro-Business Arts Defunders don’t destroy it. (Concert choir alumni, in street clothes, come on stage to join in two spirituals.)

Teachers are not necessarily better, or even as good, as their best students. We all remember pianist Sviatoslav Richter for his performances, but not performances by the man who taught him (Heinrich Neuhaus). The same goes for pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz and violinists Jascha Heitfetz and Itzhak Perlman. One Madison teacher said about an outstanding performance last weekend: “I can teach someone to play the sonata that way, but I can’t play it that way myself.” I admire such candor. That is a realistic assessment of different, if related, talents. It’s brutal, but honest. (Teacher Todd Welbourne explains the enduring importance and popularity of Beethoven at the start of the sonata concert.)

What lessons have you learned from student recitals and concerts, or any others?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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