Does Knowing What You’re Hearing Matter?

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Does Knowing What You’re Hearing Matter?

Post by lennygoran » Thu May 21, 2020 8:12 am

Does Knowing What You’re Hearing Matter?

Yuja Wang caused a small sensation at Carnegie Hall by throwing her program’s order to the winds.

By Anthony Tommasini

May 20, 2020

Carnegie Hall was packed, including extra seats on the stage, for a recital by the pianist Yuja Wang. Her program offered 13 wildly contrasting works spanning three centuries, from Bach and Galuppi through Chopin and Brahms to Ravel, Scriabin, Berg and Federico Mompou.

But in a message that was broadcast to the audience before she appeared onstage, Ms. Wang alerted everyone that she might not follow the order of works as printed in their playbills.

“I firmly believe every program should have its own life, and be a representation of how I feel at the moment,” she said. “I want to let the music surprise me. Please experience the concert with all of your senses and an open mind, and enjoy the ride.”

Musical rides can certainly be enjoyable, especially with a superb artist like Ms. Wang as your guide. Yet as she began to play that night in late February, many in the audience looked confused. People all around me were rifling through their programs, trying to figure out whether they were hearing a sonata by Scriabin or Berg; a Chopin mazurka or a Brahms intermezzo; a watery piece by Ravel or a lilting work by Mompou.

I sympathized with those who seemed rattled. After all, isn’t knowing what piece you’re hearing pretty crucial? It can certainly help one’s appreciation to place music in a historical and stylistic context.

Yet I support what I believe was Ms. Wang’s intention. Our preconceived ideas about a composer or piece can keep us from listening with fresh ears. An intermezzo by the mighty Brahms? Before you hear a note, you may already have decided it’s great.

But what about Berg? If you don’t care for atonal music — or think you don’t — you might close your mind and ears if you see a piece of his coming up next on a program. If you had done that at Ms. Wang’s recital, you would have missed fully taking in her rhapsodic performance of Berg’s early, extraordinary one-movement sonata. Yes, his harmonic language here pushes the boundaries of tonality to the breaking point. But this restless piece is nevertheless steeped in the world of late Brahms and Mahler. In keeping its identity in some way a secret, Ms. Wang might have encouraged more people to really listen to it.

When it comes to encores, classical audiences have long been used to hearing unidentified pieces. Some recitalists do prefer to introduce their encores. But more than half the time, I’d estimate, artists say nothing and just play. An encore is like an added treat, and many musicians seem to enjoy keeping their audiences guessing.

This happened just four days after Ms. Wang’s recital, when the pianist Daniil Trifonov played a Bach program at Alice Tully Hall, devoted mostly to a magnificent account of “The Art of the Fugue.” He then gave elegant performances of three encores, wonderful pieces that were surely unfamiliar to most of us, including me. It turned out that they were all composed by sons of Bach: first, a short sonata by Johann Christian; then a polonaise by Wilhelm Friedemann; and finally a rondo by Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Clearly, Mr. Trifonov wanted us to just listen. Yet I think he missed an opportunity to engage his audience by letting them in on what they were hearing. I bet that would have made people more excited; instead, many visibly shifted in their seats, looking puzzled.

I was struck by how many people at Carnegie Hall, too, seemed discombobulated by not knowing what Ms. Wang was playing at any given moment. After all, the program listed the works; she just altered the order. During the intermission, I overheard some disgruntled audience members complaining that they felt manipulated.

Ms. Wang clearly hoped her listeners would embrace what she was doing as liberating, and heed their immediate impressions of the music. She seemed intent on revealing striking similarities between very different pieces. She blazed through Scriabin’s fiery Sonata No. 5, yet she also brought out milky textures and scintillating colors in it that I’ve never heard played with such delicacy. The music sounded almost Impressionist. Practically without pausing, she began Ravel’s “Une Barque sur l’Océan,” from his “Miroirs” suite. Suddenly I heard fresh resonances between the rippling runs of the Ravel and the Chopinesque filigree of the Scriabin. You wouldn’t think of them as a pair, but hearing them together — ideally without knowing their identities — you could feel they were a natural fit.

But perhaps the fact I recognized both pieces actually helped me to sit back and enjoy the ride. Audience members who were frustrated by not being sure what they were hearing may have reacted by being less receptive, rather than more.

My critic colleague and friend Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim believes that classical concerts are, in general, overly explanatory and proscriptive. Determined to present an alternative, she has created a series called Beginner’s Ear.

“It’s named after ‘beginner’s mind,’” Corinna told me recently, “an ideal in Zen that denotes a state of opening to the present moment, not encumbered by any mental construct, thinking, experience, preference or memories — things that can get in the way of us really, really engaging.”

Translating that ideal into the concert setting is at the heart of these hourlong sessions, which feature a guided meditation that leads into a half-hour performance. Sounding a little like Yuja Wang, Corinna said that each session is meant to be “a journey that takes you along,” where one “surrenders to this hour.”

“It’s quite important to provide as little info up front as possible,” she added, “so people can enter into a state of listening, sort of a quality of opening and trust.”

The main reason not to identify the pieces beforehand is to “disable the kind of mechanism that seeks to label or analyze,” she said. Many people sit in a concert with a nagging suspicion that the person behind them is some kind of an expert getting more out of the experience that they are.

“The idea is that the more information they have, the more likely they will enjoy it,” Corinna said. But she has come to believe that the opposite can be true, too.

I agree. And this realization has the potential to profoundly change the way classical music is presented. Corinna told me that at a Beginner’s Ear session in January, the pianist Taka Kigawa played a complex piece by Pierre Boulez, alternating short movements from the score with works by Liszt, Bach and Debussy. Those works were not identified until the end, when people typically learn what pieces they’ve heard and can go home with their curiosity satisfied. Surely many had no idea they were meditating to Boulez.

That could be the most applicable takeaway if the goal is to make formal concerts less explanatory and more experiential: Music lovers might well be more willing to let go and not fret over what they’re hearing so long as they know they will find out in due course.

Ms. Wang could have found some way to make that concession. Perhaps at the end of each half, she could have told the audience the pieces she had played, or even suggested why she opted for that order. (At the end, true to form, she played three encores — and didn’t identify those, either.)

Explanatory concerts, if I can call them that, will always be central to classical music, from surveys of Beethoven’s string quartets to an orchestra pairing Mozart and Stravinsky. But if experiential offerings can foster more immediacy in listening, perhaps audiences can then bring some of that receptivity to hearing Mr. Trifonov play, say, “The Art of the Fugue.”

Of course, audience members take their cues from the environment they’re in. It’s a very different experience to hear a pianist perform in a yoga studio than in Carnegie Hall. For years, artists with adventurous streaks have been experimenting with programs that daringly juxtapose old and new works and invite listeners to embrace their confusion and let themselves go. But these have tended to take place in smaller alternative spaces, not in the main auditorium at Carnegie.

I consider this a sign of changing times in the field. It clearly pushed some people out of their comfort zones, so good for Ms. Wang. For all the frustration expressed by some listeners, I did overhear at least one man cheerfully say, “Well, I didn’t know what she was playing, but it was all beautiful.”

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Re: Does Knowing What You’re Hearing Matter?

Post by Lance » Thu May 21, 2020 4:48 pm

Well, I, for one, very much value Tommasini's reviews, and I am a great admirer of Yuja Wang. Still, when one goes to a concert, probably a greater percentage that go to classical concerts are at least aware of the various "styles" of music presented, i.e., baroque, classical, romantic of contemporary even if you can't immediately name the composer of that work. I would not enjoy following a program in the manner in which it is presented if it was altered. Usually, artists "plan" a program they want to perform having given it a lot of thought and consideration. To me, it would be a "trick" to do otherwise. I am there for the music, not the tricks. We have our ears all "set" or tuned for whatever is on the program and we get a sudden surprise. Having been to many concerts over the years, I still find people who attend concerts that are not even interested in hearing 20th- or 21st-century compositions mixed with traditional concert fare. Sometimes artists change one item on a program and substitute something else in the same vein for personal reasons, such as, perhaps, not being quite ready mentally to perform it.

I fully understand what Ms. Wang is trying to do, however, introduce music away from the program design to maybe pique their interest is not clever in my mind. Then again, someone hearing Berg might actually think it is a traditional work. (Yes, I have seen this happen ... some listeners have no clue.)

If one goes away from a concert feeling confused about a program and not being happy about being there, then that would assuredly be a negative thing for the ticket buyer. It would not disturb me to hear the program "as shown" regardless of the mixture of composers, but do not change the line-up. Knowing who composed it would give me a more precise idea of the style this composer fosters.

Just suppose you were going to the Met to hear Rigoletto but someone had the brainstorm to "surprise" the audience with Alban Berg's Wozzeck. What would your reaction be? (I overblow this example.) Now we know that the Met (or any opera house) would never do such a thing ... but what if ... someone theater executive had an idea? Would you be disappointed? How many would stay for the performance? On the other hand, if I KNEW the opera was going to Berg's I would attend it knowing what I will hear.

Everyone will have different thoughts on this. I am probably more "traditional" in my thinking, but that comes with getting older! (Maybe.) :roll:
Lance G. Hill

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]


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Re: Does Knowing What You’re Hearing Matter?

Post by Ricordanza » Fri May 22, 2020 6:33 am

Lance wrote:
Thu May 21, 2020 4:48 pm
Everyone will have different thoughts on this. I am probably more "traditional" in my thinking, but that comes with getting older! (Maybe.) :roll:
I also tend to be more "traditional" in my approach to concerts, but there's an additional reason why I prefer having a concert follow the printed program: I come to each concert as a learning experience. If there's a piece I haven't heard before, I want to know everything about it--who is the composer? What else did he or she write? When was it composed? The printed program, at the very least, gives me the basics. Program notes, if available, give me even more information. And at some concerts, such as recitals by Jeremy Denk, the performer speaks to the audience and gives us even more information.

What about learning by listening to the piece? Of course, that's the whole point of a concert, but my particular brain likes to put it in a framework--that is, a description in the program that identifies, at the very least, the composer and the name of the piece. This doesn't diminish my ability to really listen to the piece; rather, it enhances that experience. But if the performer changes the order of the printed program without announcing it beforehand, that framework is gone and I would feel a little lost.

What about encores? As you can probably guess from the above, I prefer that they be announced. If not announced and I don't recognize the piece, I'll first ask a fellow concertgoer and then, if they don't know, I'll send an email to the concert promoter.

That being said, I look forward to the day I can hear Yuja in concert once again, playing ANYTHING SHE WANTS!

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Re: Does Knowing What You’re Hearing Matter?

Post by barney » Fri May 22, 2020 7:12 am

What Lance and Ricordanza said. Spot on.

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Re: Does Knowing What You’re Hearing Matter?

Post by maestrob » Fri May 22, 2020 12:05 pm

Well said. 8)

I too prefer to hear what I'm expecting, even though I can't go to concerts any more. I rarely listen to radio, preferring to choose my music from either my collection or what's available online. Imagine if a CD was mislabeled. I'd immediately send it back for a replacement.

I'm glad it's not just me! :)

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Re: Does Knowing What You’re Hearing Matter?

Post by slofstra » Mon May 25, 2020 2:44 pm

If you know it's Yuja Wang, or any one of a dozen other active incredible classical pianists, then who cares what they play? You know it's going to be good.

If you go to see a pop performer, like Paul Simon or Alison Krauss, you'll have no idea what will be played from one song to the next. In fact, wouldn't it be incredible if people clapped out of a sense of recognition when a pianist launched into the Pathetique or Raindrop Prelude, or whistled or hooted like they do after hearing a few bars of "Candles in the Wind". Okay, pulling your leg on that one. But people do like surprises, when they are pleasant ones.

Just to pull back from that a little bit, Neil Young does two different kinds of tours. Sometimes he tours with his Nashville based musicians, and performs songs from Gold Rush and Harvest, songs that were AM radio hits. And other times he tours with a grunge band, and you'll get 10 minute guitar solos and lots of feedback. Anyway, he has upset fans who are expecting the AM radio stuff, and get the grunge band instead. Of course, the true devotees know Young's music, and know what's coming ahead of time.

All that is to say that I think any musician should cater to expectations to a point, but they are also artists, and audiences should be somewhat open to new directions, and perhaps, enjoy an element of surprise. When we attend the K-W Symphony here, I make a point of not looking at program information ahead of time, and only know what's being performed when I look at the program after I'm seated. That being said, I do like to know what it is I heard after the fact, if only to seek out recordings, or make a note to "avoid" for the future. The easy solution to this problem is for the artist to announce the pieces as they're being played. I do appreciate when performers announce the names of their encore selections, although they usually botch it and leave everyone going, "what did he say?", "what piece is it?", or from some of the somnolent members of the audience, "did they say something?", or sometimes even, "oh shoot, does this mean it's not over yet?".

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