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Summer 2015

The Other Kind of Musical Scale

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Wendy Lesser

Not do re mi. Not the eight piano keys (or twelve, if you count the black ones) from middle C to the C just above it. Not any of those major and minor scales that music students endlessly practice to get to Carnegie Hall. I’m talking instead about Carnegie Hall itself—or rather, the relationship of the hall (whether it be Carnegie or the Berlin Philharmonie at one end, Le Poisson Rouge or a domestic living room at the other) to the piece that is performed on its stage. What I’ve been thinking about recently is the question of size, or proportion, in the experience of hearing live music.

It is not as obvious as you might imagine. In some cases, a single performer can dominate the stage of a large venue, as Andras Schiff did when he played Haydn, Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven sonatas at San Francisco’s Davies Hall in February. I have heard Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode each perform similar miracles at Carnegie Hall. There was no sense of disproportion at these concerts. Pieces that had been composed to be listened to in drawing rooms worked just fine in front of an audience of thousands.

And yet. And yet. The first time I heard Uchida live was at the Kammermusiksaal (the small chamber-music venue) in the Philharmonic building in Berlin. The Germans had apparently not caught onto her yet, so reasonably priced tickets in the second row were available almost at the last minute. She did not play any better than she does at Carnegie; the music itself, in that respect, was only as remarkable as hers usually is. But the experience of sitting about twenty feet away from her as she played the piano was transformative. It reminded me of the time my husband and my son and I sat in the first row at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh and heard Yo Yo Ma play all six Bach cello suites. Yes, it was Bach, and yes, it was Yo Yo Ma, so transcendence was practically a given. But this was intimate and personal as well. It was as if we three owned the performance, as if we were not only essential to the undertaking as it happened but could carry it away with us when it was finished. (As all three of us, each in our own way, proceeded to do.)

Still, the musical experience I most often compare to this Greyfriars concert, in my mind and in print, is Christian Tetzlaff’s performance of all six Bach partitas and sonatas for the solo violin, and that took place in a large hall—in the main auditorium of the 92nd Street Y, to be exact. I heard him do it there twice, at an interval of five years, and each time it was different. The first time it was a galvanizing shock: I didn’t know a human being could do this. (Whether the human in question was Bach or Tetzlaff, or some combination of the two, was something I would not have been able to specify.) The second time it was pure, unadulterated pleasure. Because I knew better what to expect, I could appreciate the ways in which Tetzlaff had subtly but definitively made these pieces his own. He grew into them, and they grew with him. And because I had seen it done before, the sheer physical challenge of the 136-minute performance —which is enormous—was allowed to drift into the background, effaced by the music itself.

Would this concert have been better in a tiny room? Not necessarily. The intimacy would have been delightful, of course, but I have no trouble owning Tetzlaff at a distance. After following him around for years (most recently to Berlin and New York in the space of a single week), I feel he is mine in a way few other performers are. When he plays beautifully, I take pride in it: pointless and unearned pride, because I have had nothing whatsoever to do with the achievement, but pride nonetheless. And I find it is just as easy to get that marveling, stirred-up, jealously protective feeling in a large venue as a small one. Easier, in fact, because the sight of that thin, lone, gently swaying figure on the huge, otherwise empty stage evokes an emotion that partakes, in some ways, of both pity and terror. Will he be able to carry it off once again? Is it even humanly possible? And then, lightly dancing his way through the music, he does, and the whole crowd is there to witness and confirm it.

Recently, I had a chance to test the “scale” question in an unusual way: by witnessing two performances of purposely-scaled-down events, each of which I had previously seen in its larger form. One of these was Dvorák’s Stabat Mater. Apparently the more familiar orchestral version (which I saw memorably conducted by John Eliot Gardiner in Edinburgh, during that same long-ago summer of the Yo Yo Ma concert) was Dvorák’s second try at the composition. He had first written it after the death of his young daughter for just a solo piano accompanying a chorus and soloists; then he fully orchestrated it a few years later, after two more of his children had died.

In April I saw the piano-only work done by the Camerata Vocale in Berlin, on a program with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Performed in the Kammermusiksaal, the Dvorák was touchingly personal in its new size and location; it was also recognizably the same piece, musically, as the one I had heard twenty years earlier in Edinburgh. But perhaps because my ear was expecting an orchestra, the piano music somehow felt provisional, as if we were listening to a rehearsal, say, rather than a fully prepared concert.

I had the opposite experience, though, when I attended a Baroque-sized performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in March. A collaboration involving the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the event was organized by the tenor Mark Padmore, who directed the production, performed the Evangelist role, and—because there were only sixteen singers, including soloists—sang in at least half the choral parts as well. In fact, every member of the hardworking team of singers and musicians (who performed, notably, without a conductor) stood out as an individual in this concert. The paring-down emphasized both the human side of the Passion story and the human scale of the musical piece itself, so that what we ended up getting was Bach in his essence, grand and intimate all at once.

Having heard Padmore twice do the Evangelist role in Peter Sellars’s and Simon Rattle’s massive and stunning production of the St. Matthew Passion, I anticipated that his own little version might seem a bit puny by comparison. But as it turned out, the intensity of the music came across even more directly in this incarnation than it had at a larger scale. Showmanship and technique ceased to be visible; expression and feeling took over completely. Though I was amazed (as I had been with Tetzlaff) at Padmore’s vocal and physical endurance, that admiration was soon transformed into something else: a pure appreciation of the way bodily effort had given rise to something I can only, as a confirmed atheist, call spiritual meaning. And I was not the only person who felt this way. The entire Concertgebouw audience, which was packed with Dutch fans of the St. Matthew Passion (they go, on average, to at least one Matthew a year), was equally thrilled and moved. We thousands in the audience outnumbered the performers by several orders of magnitude, and yet they held us in the palms of their hands.

Music is unusual in this way. There is no such thing, in my experience, as a theater performance that benefits from a large venue. Every good play I have ever seen would have been better on a small stage in a small auditorium—and the best of them, from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to Sam Shepard’s True West to David Hare’s Skylight, were done that way the first time I saw them. There is no question of scale in the theater. Smaller is always better, and that’s that. Even spectacular directors (I mean directors like Stephen Daldry and Nicholas Hytner, who love the visual trappings and extra thrills of theater-as-spectacle) have done their best, most compelling work in smaller venues; by the time their productions reach Broadway or the West End, a certain institutional quality always enters in.

And even opera, I’ve found, often improves with reduction. Three of the most memorable opera performances I’ve attended—an all-male, two-piano version of Così fan tutte at a black-box theater in Berlin, a recent Gotham Opera production of Eliogabalo at a downtown club called The Box, and last summer’s Turn of the Screw at Opera Holland Park in London—took place on stages not much larger than a generous studio apartment. In such cases, you can’t do all the fancy things with sets that opera directors like to do, and some of the singers might have to hold back on their boldest, loudest notes, but these losses in display can actually contribute to the power of the work. In becoming more human-sized, the opera doesn’t just become more emotionally accessible; it also foregrounds the riskiness, the craziness, and the unearthly beauty of a form that has its characters sing instead of speak.

But music, unlike other kinds of performance, does not always benefit from smallness. There are works that absolutely require a large venue to have their full effect. We can all think of examples: Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Eighth, Brahms’s German Requiem. It is probably no accident that these gigantic pieces involve the human voice, and not just the human voice, but the large-chorus voice, the voice at full, collective strength. For these kinds of compositions—the ones that are capable of reaching out and shaking you in your seat—a large hall and a large stage are a necessity.

I thought of this last February as I listened to the San Francisco Symphony perform the Brahms Requiem under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt. The soloists, Ruth Ziesak and Christian Gerhaher, were excellent, but soloists do not make this piece. The orchestra performers were also fine, but that was somehow neither here nor there. In this work everything depends on the chorus, and if they are good enough (as the San Francisco Symphony Chorus certainly was), the whole thing is a success. This was neither the best nor the worst German Requiem I have ever heard, because in fact they do not vary in quality: they have always been good. It is never a matter of specific virtuosity or outstanding individual talents. It is a matter of the strength and power inherent in numbers. And in my privileged listening experience—in Berlin, in New York, in San Francisco—the requisite strength has always been there. We in the audience could feel it in our ears, and we could also feel it in our bodies. The Requiem took over and made us its own, so that for once the feeling of possession was reversed: I felt the music owned me, and not vice versa.

Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of ten books, the most recent of which is Why I Read. She is currently writing a biography of the architect Louis Kahn.

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