Out of Time

So now two of the singers I’m accompanying this semester are singing Samuel Barber’s “Sea-Snatch,” which means I’ve been working it up again. (I swear, repertoire leaves my fingers in a matter of minutes.) You can hear Leontyne Price sing it here; it’s only thirty seconds long, so the entire song fits within most online retailers’ sound clips.

“Sea-Snatch” isn’t technically that difficult, but it’s tricky for me, because I have to turn my accuracy monitor off when I perform it. If I start to listen for right and wrong notes, it’s all over, because the piece goes by so fast. So I have to figure out how to psych myself up to just plunge in and hope for the best. The way I do this is to pretend that what Barber was really doing was writing a rock and roll song. Now, I don’t know that Barber even knew what rock and roll was (he probably must have heard some of it at some point), and I certainly have no evidence whatsoever to claim that “Sea-Snatch” was written with that sound in his ear. But in this case, a completely unfounded stylistic assumption makes the piece work for me.

I don’t know if other performers do this, but I do it a lot. And often the stylistic choices are wildly off-base. The easiest way for me to get the phrasing right in “Parto! ma tu ben mio,” Sesto’s aria from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, is to imagine that it’s gospel music. I finally started to get the hang of Joseph Marx’s “Marienlied” by playing it like a Cole Porter ballad. For me, baroque music and bebop have an odd affinity. (It works in chronological reverse, too: I often think Stephen Sondheim to be Schubert reincarnated.) And the list goes on and on.

I think I first started doing this when I was an undergrad. I remember playing Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock” for a clarinetist friend’s recital. At the time, I had been listening to a lot of Schubert on the fortepiano, and I thought it would be neat to try and emulate that delicacy and transparency on a modern instrument. We had a coaching with my friend’s teacher, John Bruce Yeh. John would have none of it. “Play it like Wagner,” he said. He was right.

And then there’s Exhibit A in why I think musicians need to know as much music as they possibly can (not to mention how I often miss the painfully obvious). I had the good fortune to study piano with Dmitry Paperno, who studied with Alexander Goldenweiser, who studied with Alexander Siloti, who studied with Rubenstein and Liszt (making me by far the most unlikely and wayward pianist of the great Russian tradition ever). Paperno was no slouch when it came to contemporary music; he had played Shostakovich for Shostakovich, he was friends with Shchedrin, and he knew brilliant Ukranian atonalists I had never heard of. But he had never played or taught Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierst├╝cke when I brought it in one day. I had been fascinated with Schoenberg since high school, but I had never quite figured out how to get the notes from the page into my fingers in a convincing way. Paperno figured it out in about ten seconds: it’s Romantic music. Play it like Brahms.

Well, duh. Not the first or the last time I’ve walked through a room without seeing the elephant in it. But what if I hadn’t known anything about Romantic style? (Not unlikely; given my teenage preferences, if it hadn’t been for the piano, I wouldn’t have learned about that repertoire until much later.) What if no one had come along with the patience to prod my dense self into seeing the connection? What if I had stubbornly insisted that Schoenberg was Schoenberg, and to interpret his music in light of an “outdated” tradition was anachronistic and heretical?

I’ve become convinced that, after a certain point, a big part of music education just becomes a daily effort to apply what you already know. (Every time I do a Chopin piece, I still hear Professor Paperno scolding me into a legato line: “All your friends are singers. How can you play this so badly?”) With all the stylistic balkanization going on in the classical world, all the specialization, all the concern with performance practice, I run into a lot of performers who think they “don’t know how to do” early music, or Baroque music, or (especially) contemporary music. Yes, you do. If you know Bach, and it reminds you of Bach, play it like Bach. If you know Broadway, and it reminds you of Broadway, play it like Broadway. If people tell you it’s inappropriate, screw ’em. I’ve heard far too many concerts in which the performers were so concerned about being stylistically “appropriate” that they forgot to make music. If you’re convinced, the audience will be convinced, at least for the duration of the piece. Maybe they’ll pick apart your choices after the concert. But that’s infinitely better then them falling asleep while it’s going on.

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