Earlier this week I had the privilege of leading a series of conducting workshops for the Sacred Music Conference at Virginia Wesleyan College. The workshops fell under the heading "Performance Practice: Style and sound from page to presentation" and featured a session each devoted to the periods of Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic and 20th Century music, concluding with a reading session of vibrant 21st century composers like Robert Convery, John Dixon, Adolphus Hailstork, Eleanor Daley and Amy Scurria.
I opened the sessions by quoting Robert Shaw's observation that falling in love requires being in the right place at the right time for a long enough period of time. We need to spend time with Bach and Beethoven to fall in love with them, and if we do not study and perform them, we cannot expect to meet them, much less fall in love.
In the outline below I am making some first stabs at getting at a philosophy or m.o. that attempts to incorporate the tenets of the "performance practice" movement with the concept of a holistic/contextual/integrated/multi-layered approach to music-making (from the conductor's background work to the rehearsal process to the performance). In this context, "performance practice" means integrating every aspect of that process into the rehearsal, engaging the participants on a variety of levels, and approaching the work from a variety of perspectives. As such, the nuts and bolts of notes and rhythms are surface level representations--signs and guideposts indicating the direction where meaning and significance are found.
Performance Practice: Style and sound from page to presentation
3 stages of “homework” (1. Selection, 2. Preparation, 3. Presentation):
1. Selection of rep (Background)=”homework” of research—history, biography, context, style, trends/developments, etc
2. Preparation (Middle-ground)=”homework” of score study (on every level—see above), rehearsal prep, etc
3. Presentation (Foreground)=”nuts & bolts” of rehearsal and ultimately, performance
Our challenge and temptation is always focusing on step 3 at the expense of the time-consuming—and engaging/stimulating/nourishing—preliminary steps of preparation.
I believe authentic “performance practice” occurs when all three phases are in balance, with each step in the process informing the others.
Performance Practice: Overview of a concept
1. In the academy & concert hall, we are referring to “period” performances, using “authentic” historical instruments or an interpretation informed by such.
2. In addition to the above-mentioned concerns for historically informed preparation & presentation, I submit performance practice as a concept that can enliven every aspect of the process, by
*engaging all of the conductor’s faculties, from the background forward…
*presenting a living & organic model via the notion of “recreating” a composition
* challenging singers to engage more fully through this multi-layered approach
Performance Practice: Nuts & Bolts
1. Skipping ahead to the 2nd step in our 3-step outline above (Preparation), the Middle-ground consists of these well-known fundamentals:
tempo, articulation, phrasing, intonation, style & interpretation.
2. An historically “authentic” performance factors in the considerations from the background, making “appropriate” stylistic & interpretive decisions (ie: non vibrato for much 16th century music, speech &/or dance-like articulation for much of the Baroque, molto schmaltzy rubato for 19th c., etc)*
3. Performance practice as an organic concept* for rehearsal engages the singers in interpretation, enlists their participation in discovering and recreating the “authentic” performance, and infuses the process with meaning and significance.
*Each period has distinctive stylistic & interpretive characteristics, thus Bach should not be performed in the same style as Brahms, etc. The concept of performance practice in rehearsal, however, seeks to engage the conductor and singers on these intersecting levels regardless of the style of music.