Tuesday, December 02, 2003

The Art of Performance

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

I was reading an article that struck a chord with me (disclaimer: the article is about the art of the piano, but I really wasn’t trying for a pun…), and I thought you might be interested, as much of what we write about concerns the meaning of art.

Denis Dutton writes about music theorist and pianist Charles Rosen in a wide-sweeping book review that concludes with a discussion of atonality, a topic we have touched on here before. But what got me thinking was Dutton’s description of Rosen’s reaction to the contemporary urge for musical authenticity. Many musicians strive to interpret and play music as it was “intended” by the composer, using only the musical conventions and technology of its original era.

But Rosen believes that, even when first performed, the art is in the performance itself, and that by focusing too much on the composer or even the work, something has been lost, both for performers and audiences.

Dutton writes:

…He is skeptical, even cynical, about the capacity of study to bring a musician to an ultimate inner truth in a musical work. His attitude strikes me as almost deconstructive: there is no hope of discovering some inner “presence” of the composer’s mind in the work, because no such entity exists.

When we talk about classical music, we almost exclusively talk about composers. When you posted about the two recordings you own of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, we discussed the difference in the interpretation, and I jumped at once to proclaim Bernstein’s inferior because he did not embrace the composer’s narrative. But while Bernstein’s version may be less “authentic,” is it more or less valuable as art?

Performance art brings up questions like that all the time. How many versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have you seen? How different have they been? Is the art in the text, or in the interpretation and performance? You don’t have those questions looking at a Picasso or a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.



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