Elgar thread….

Interesting discussion of the Elgar brouhaha brought to my attention at Okayplayer, including this….

Sure, we go back and forth on the merits of demerits of this or that producer, Nas’ terrible choice of beats or the question of novelty vs. talent…

But classical music heads proved they can be just as bitchy as any of us on our worst

The Okayplayer forum is, as the first line of the thread intimates, primarily a pop-oriented forum, which makes the interest in and curiosity about this thread all the more encouraging. I had not intended to write any more on this subject, but this discovery does make me think that this kind of discussion (especially if we can make it a discussion and not a battle of diatribes) is good for classical music.

But bitchy? Well, I wasn’t always a classical music head (at least not exclusively a classical music head, and I did conduct a funk band this summer….), but maybe I was a little bitchy… However, they won me over with this-

And finally, one of the more interesting posts I read, a two-parter:
1) A rebuttal of the idea that Elgar should be played without vibrato:

2) A full analysis of the performance, complete with mp3s

Acutally, I’d like to think that this discussion is more akin to the assesment of Nas’ beat selection issues than that of novelty vs talent, and isn’t great that a discussion (argument) about classical aesthetics has other musicians talking? I liked the message “vibrato is like oversinging in soul music.”

when you get rid of it things fall flat. when its over used it becomes a transparent gimmick

I might add that when you get rid of it it also becomes a transparent gimmick….

However, the reason I wanted to mention this thread was this line-

I definitely get the impression that a lot of people may primarily be annoyed by the conductor, as you say, since the responses seem to have a lot of personal stuff in there, implications that he is seeking attention, etc. I can respect the argument that ‘with vibrato’ is probably the intended way, and that the conductor seems to be proposing that the intentions of Elgar were ‘without,’ but shouldn’t there at least be room for a conductor to offer his interpretation?

I recognize that the conductor may be presenting his interpretation as having some special merit, but I see it as a somewhat conservative viewpoint that doesn’t allow for variation in perfomance style, even extreme variation. I like the Kenneth Woods writing, which seems well-reasoned and explained, but why can’t a conductor experiment with “imposing a sound aesthetic?” We do that in popular music, perform a song in different styles. Why verboten here?

My answer is that there’s no reason not to experiment with imposing a sound aesthetic- not verboten at all. However, we should be honest about what we’re doing. Stowkowski’s arrangements of Bach are wonderful pieces in their own right (never mind Webern’s, Cage’s or any of the thousands of transcription and arrangements of Bach, including Elgar’s), but they are not Bach, they’re Bach/Stowkowski. There is a rich and noble tradition of arranging classical works for different kinds of ensembles- Schoenberg’s transcription of Mahler’s Das Lied von Der Erde transforms a work for over 100 players into one for under 20 while staying amazingly true to Mahler’s soundworld. On the other hand, there are dozens of arrangements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition other than the famous Ravel one, including ones for percussion ensemble or male voice choir. Leonard Slatkin has his own version of the piece with each movement arranged by a different hand. These arrangements, reworkings and rediscoveries all allow us to hear new ideas in pieces we love.

On the other hand, lets look at the Elgar 1 situation in pop terms. Imagine a young producer got lucky enough to be hired to master a new hi-def edition of all the Beatles albums. Now imagine if that producer not only started trying to remix those albums to sound like he always wanted them to. At first he just adds a bit of reverb and changes some EQ settings, but then he starts re-tracking, changing stereo positioning, etc. Maybe he cuts the trumpet solo in Penny Lane and replaces it with a keyboard. Fair enough if he releases it as “Beatles re-imagined and re-mixed by….” But if he lets the record company put it on the shelves as the Beatles albums as they were created by the original team, that’s just a lie.

So, the first thing that got my hackles up was this misrepresentation of a conductor’s experiment as a performance that is not only faithful to Elgar’s conception, but MORE faithful than those of other conductors who do not share this conductor’s aesthetic.

 However, the more I worked on the 2nd post, the more I realized that my larger concern was that as an experiment, it’s prety sloppy and unsuccessful. Yes, the orchestra plays marvellously, but at the end of the day, so much of the detail that is in the piece is lost to sloppy balances and bland articulations. A conductor like Celibidache could be incredibly willful and disrespectful towards certain aspects of the score (notably the tempi), but at his best he does find certain qualities that make it worth putting up with his quirks (though I think he would have been an even greater musician if he could have had that uncanny ear for color and tension without bringing music to a stop so often). 

Part of this is simply due to the fact that this aesthetic seems to be all about what the players aren’t doing- not only are they not vibrating (let alone not varying their vibrato- there are a million ways to vibrate and one way not to), they’re also not playing in the string, they’re not connecting bow strokes, they’re not making differences in contact point, and on the other hand, the marvellous brass section doesn’t seem to be doing much to accomadate the strings.

Perhaps in future performances the conductor in question will be more successful in bringing to life more of what Elgar imagined, or be more creative and daring in remaking the piece as his own….

I’m guessing that the longer an institution stands, the more “stuffy” it stands to get. Which is why despite innovation, classical music still holds on to a number of silly traditions… I think it will be interesting to watch hip hop work over the next two or three decades, and observe how aging (and respected) traditions change the game.

What’s been interesting about this discussion is that both sides of the argument have been claiming to have claim to the true tradition. Although factually it is not hard to determine whether or not constant non-vibrato playing is something Elgar would have wanted, we live in the age of point-counterpoint, so the two “sides” will be debated. Who is being conservative here- are both, or are both trying to be progressive. I’d like to think my own Elgar perspective is progressive- I’ve spent my own time trying to find a historical and honest basis for evolving the way we play this music, but I’m sure other conductors feel the same.

But the right/wrong discussion is the wrong one- to me, the interesting discussion is about what is better, truer, more exciting. I have to think that Elgar’s version of Elgar 1 must have been the best one, and that the closer we get to understanding what he’s written and bringing it to life, the better, more satisfying and more interesting our performances get. Bringing one new idea to a piece as big and rich as this is not enough- at least it shouldn’t be enough. We can’t let ourselves be satisfied with simplistic ways of looking at great music. We shouldn’t be afraid to try doing things differently, as long as we try to still do what we do with imagination, honesty and spark.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “Elgar thread….”

  1. Composerbastard

    A lot of bitchy hot conductor wind here, K =)

    “…Stowkowski’s arrangements of Bach are wonderful pieces in their own right (never mind Webern’s, Cage’s or any of the thousands of transcription and arrangements of Bach, including Elgar’s), but they are not Bach, they’re Bach/Stowkowski. …”

    Ummm were talking about playing vibrato, not arranging or orchestrating. Fer god sakes, any kind of spin saying they are the same thing totally falls flat with me…so please don’t go there.

    The rest of your converse makes sense to me. But, I just dont think there are any rules or absolutes in the matter, except what calls for the moment, and what calls to be accomplished – the conductor approaching the music, the situation (who is playing, their sound, the hall), and what he/she wants to express in that interpretation for the particular occasion at hand. I could see a different amount of vibrato in each concert for that matter.

  2. Richard Sparks

    Hi Ken,

    Great series of posts on performance practice and its use and abuse!

    I just posted on this and add this excerpt:

    During the time I was conducting The Bach Ensemble (from 1973-80), Stanley Ritchie moved to Seattle as first violinist of the Philadelphia String Quartet (in residence at the University of Washington). Stanley also had a significant background as a baroque violinist and was in a duo with harpsichordist Elisabeth Wright. (Stanley has now for some time been in charge of the baroque orchestral program at Indiana University). He was also concertmaster of the New York City Opera and assistant concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera, so he’s clearly an outstanding violinist in any style.

    I worked with Stanley for a period of time to learn about baroque violin techniques and (at that time) how to adapt those techniques to the modern instrument and player. Here’s where questions of period instruments really can begin to inform. For example, the baroque violinist didn’t use a chin rest or shoulder rest. Without being able to hold the instrument between shoulder and chin, the left hand has to support the instrument more. That doesn’t make vibrato impossible, but you can’t vibrate all the time and with the same intensity that one can with a chin and shoulder rest. It also changes some fingerings, since the violinist has to “crawl” between positions part of the time.

    Gut strings also make a difference in sound and how much one can dig into the string (at a certain level of pressure the string simply doesn’t speak well). The bow itself, shorter and lighter at the tip, doesn’t allow for as much pressure as one can make with a modern bow. That means that dynamics are created more by bow speed than pressure (Ken Woods makes the excellent point that in Elgar’s time, playing into the string is a part of the style of the time).

    These are just a few things that learning about period instruments tells us.

    Briefly back to vibrato: in the opening movement of the Bach Johannespassion, the flutes and oboes play a series of suspensions. When I do it, I ask the winds to play senza vibrato, since that heightens the dissonance–and therefore, the expressivity of those passages. I think that “authenticity” doesn’t have to mean bland–it’s in how you approach it.

    John Brough, on his blog, mentioned earlier keyboard practices of playing without using thumbs. While this doesn’t have to mean that a modern player can’t use their thumbs, it does teach something about articulation and how notes would/could be grouped. I think the major point is to take this knowledge and use it to learn more about how the music was done and what it expressed (and how it expressed it).

    At any rate, I always enjoy your posts–terrific!

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Richard-

    Thanks so much for this, I couldn’t agree more.

    You make a wonderful point about suspensions- we tend to think of vibrato as something one adds to heighten espressivity, but often, it is more expressive to withhold vibrato in moments of intense dissonance, which may mean that a certain subtle vibrato on on either side of such a moment might be called for. It’s all about listening to what the music needs, rather than imposing a formula.

    All best!

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