In Hans Christian Andersen’s short tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, two fellows–today we would refer to them as con artists, promise an Emperor some new clothes that are invisible to stupid people. The vain Emperor, for fear of being considered stupid, parades himself naked through the streets. Only a child, in his candor, can shout the truth–“But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”, and make everyone realize they had all been conned.
A friend sent me an article by music critic Michael White.
Mr. White mentions music critics suffering secretly through a performance of some celebrated work they really can’t stand. He also mentions people attending concerts feeling like they have to put up a show of delight only for fear of passing for unsophisticated if they dare say they do not like a particular work. It made me think of Andersen’s tale.
The article also talks about how a beloved work might become difficult to listen to, strenuous, exhausting, even unbearable, due to excessively frequent programming.
In the piano world, with the massive amount of repertoire we have, recital programs and even concerto performances seldom deviate from mainstream repertoire. This is very limiting, and really a shame. Of course, some works are immortal, they transcend time and must be offered to concert goers, especially to new generations (when the Holy Spirit moves them to actually enter such an unhip place as a concert hall). However, I think the ideal balance in a recital program consists of an equal number of mainstream works/composers and relative unknowns. Sometimes a pianist has to push a little to convince presenters that his/her program is worth listening to!
For a New York recital of mine a few years ago, at Carnegie Hall, my proposed program was: Beethoven-Eroica Variations Op.35; Czerny-Variations “La Ricordanza” Op.33; Liszt-Ballade No.2; Julius Reubke-Sonata in B flat minor; Howard Ferguson-Sonata Op.8. The Reubke and the Ferguson are two very big pieces, and virtually unknown. The presenter expressed concern that people might be scared away. “You have an unknown (sic!) Beethoven, Czerny, whom people think of as just a composer for kids” (I guess because of his Etudes), “and in the second half you want to play composers no one has ever heard of?”. I was determined to play the program the way I had conceived it. I had put a lot of thought into it. However, after much pressing, urging, and pleading on his part, I agreed to show some “flexibility”. Could I not do away with either the Reubke or the Ferguson and replace it with a “blockbuster”? He suggested I do away with the Reubke because it was longer than the Ferguson. As to say, he went with the lesser of two evils (he, of course, did not know either work. I don’t blame him. Nobody played them!). In the end, I played the Ferguson, and replaced the Reubke with the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata (a mainstream work played all too frequently, but a gorgeous piece of music, of course).
I remember when I was a student, reading through and learning masterpieces such as the Beethoven Sonatas, the Chopin Ballades, the Bach Preludes and Fugues and hundreds of other works. The intensity of the passion I had, the true love I felt. The impact of those “first times” was truly profound, and will last for as long as I live. Yet, studying those works, performing those works, teaching those works, listening to them hundreds of times while judging competitions or at piano recitals, I do feel the need to put some distance from many of them, and to explore, to “discover” new music…new for me, anyway. All in hope of feeling that same coup de foudre I felt when first playing through the Schumann Fantasy, the Beethoven Appassionata, the Liszt Sonata, to name a few. You might object that there aren’t any works of such sublimity or importance to be “discovered”, and that might be true. Much of the lesser-known or unknown repertoire from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is not worth unearthing. However, how are you going to find any buried gems without looking? I did find quite a few, and they gave me much pleasure. Besides, most of the pleasure for me is in the process of looking! When and if I happen to “find” something, that’s a big fat bonus.