Should hard music sound hard?

The group is in Australia right now, having an fantastic time with students in Melbourne and Brisbane and enjoying concerts in same, with Sydney thrown into the mix, as well as lots of good coffee, wine, beer and food, all at exorbitant prices (holy crap the US dollar sucks). We sometimes have some free nights and free ticket connections to see concerts on the road, and in Melbourne got to see the Tasmanian Symphony orchestra, featuring cello soloist Alban Gerhardt playing the first cello concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich.

Say what you want about his playing stylistically–and I have some thoughts, but they’re not really pertinent to this particular blog post–but if you heard him on that concert, you couldn’t deny that the guy’s a technical wizard, solid as solid can be. Old Shosti has plenty of ground to cover and places to show off, culminating in a ginormous cadenza spanning the second to third movement, which he nailed. To the wall.

And yet…standing ovation? No. A healthy applause, certainly, but no O, and barely even a hoot. Why? After it was done, I turned to Tim, who said tellingly: “I dunno, maybe the piece was too easy for him?”

It sure sounded that way—he seemed impatient, always a hair ahead of the orchestra, executing difficult passagework with barely a modicum of effort, always looking towards the next hurdle to jump. Some of the fast bits in the cadenza were faster than I’d ever heard them, and he barely seemed to be breaking a sweat. I noticed myself tuning out a little, and then asking myself why. Did it all sound too easy? Or is it that hard music sound hard?

Musically, we’re already living in a world of wonders, in that I can’t imagine any other time in history where so many people have had such a mastery of any instrument you can think of. Or, if you allow me to have a cello geek-out moment, we’re living in a time where Pablo Casals, still considered the best cellist who ever lived ever by many, would have struggled to get into an undergraduate conservatory (sorry Master P–you’re musical but too out of tune) and Prokofiev Symphony Concertante is the new Dvorak (ie 10ths are the new octaves). Even the Shostakovich concerto used to seem hard, but is now routinely learned by high school kids, and younger.

Shosti’s an interesting example, though, and here’s my problem with this performance—the piece should sound like a struggle. It’s not Paganini, it’s not meant to sound easy–and really, should anything by Shostakovich ever sound “easy?” That being said, how do you communicate that struggle while still dutifully hitting all the shifts and hard bits, as the audience demands and upon which your career depends? Or is it just that if you see someone blazing through hard passagework that spans minutes like it was nothing, it just dulls the senses, like if you saw a world class gymnast on a high bar execute 40 perfect flips in a row; you’ll be wowed by the first few, and snoozing by the end. Or is it the piece’s fault? Should the hard stuff be parceled out a bit more, like a drug dealer making sure his customer doesn’t OD?

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