Thursday, May 20, 2010

Technique, Style and Soul

What makes a great performance so? Perhaps it is as "simple" as achieving balance across a continuum that includes three essential elements: technique, style, and soul.

Technique being the perfect-as-possible execution of all the constituent elements involved. Attention to details. Facility.

Style being less "fixed" than technique, more difficult to measure, yet quantifiable. Fluency. Flow. Communication. Intelligibility. Authenticity.

Soul resisting description. The viscera that connects technique and style and adds mystery. Heart. Guts. Difficult to define. Even more difficult to mistake or miss.

The eminent conductor Riccardo Muti is a wizard of technical accomplishment and stylistic fluency. His Verdi performances--from Nabucco & Attila to the Requiem & Don Carlo--are a diamond-sharp study in why attention to detail is paramount.

The articulation of the brass instruments in his La Scala Requiem recording--the trumpets in "Dies Irae" and the trombones in "Sanctus"--is electrifying. Hair-raisingly precise, played with stylistic, Italianate flair. Which is exactly why it is so thrilling to hear.

Details lesser mortals overlook emerge as illuminations of their creator's genius in hands like Muti's. "Repetitive" accompaniment figures reveal their true colors, and in a tension-ratcheting scene like the Filippo-Posa duet (Don Carlo), "predictable" 8th note patterns in the strings sound like a chest-pounding heart beat or ticking bomb. Both interpretations fit the situation.
Go "figure..."

Muti puts the move in movendo. This is not speed or facility for its own sake. The aforementioned "Sanctus" from Verdi's Requiem is unbelievable for the passage-work of not only the brass, but the other 200 hundred musicians of the orchestra and chorus. Six-winged celestial seraphim should make such ear-opening sounds.

As a member of the Westminster Symphonic Choir performing with the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, I missed working with Muti by just a season. Perche?!?

I still remember a dream I had during my first semester of graduate school. Muti had returned to campus, and was treated like a demigod. He was dressed like an eastern mystic in a flowing robe (in the dream it was a yellow sundress). The entire campus community followed him around like disciples. I can still picture his wide-brimmed summer hat.

The handful of recordings from those years in Philadelphia are benchmarks. The Berlioz, Brahms and Scriabin symphonies, the verismo operas (even if his Tosca is unevenly cast, Giuseppe Giacomini's inimitable Cavaradossi covers a multitude of alleged missteps).

"They are growing tired of my sugary-sweet dramas" complained Puccini, sometime between Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

Let 'em eat cake, Giacomo.

One of Don Barthelme's voices takes a swipe at his critics by imitating one and complaining of a literary movement gone "a little sweet." It is described--with typical tongue-in-cheek acidity-- as "the wine of life turning into Gatorade."

Alas, some of Puccini's imitators did just that, and we are left with Il Divo and other phantoms where operas used to be.

In the same piece, Barthelme drops the fictional ruse and addresses the critics of modernism directly. Without calling them vampires, he calls them on the carpet of their deconstructionism for the life they suck out of new literature with academic analysis. "A tyranny of great expectations obtains, a rage for final explanations." Such "interpretations" rob art of much of its essential mystery. "Tear a mystery to tatters and you have tatters, not mystery."

That is the open-ended, inclusive, room-for-interpretation space art--and the human beings who make it--requires. The place where technique and style mingle with soul to emerge in the work as a greater whole and so move us.

When interpreters like Muti flesh out essential details and offer committed, impassioned, informed interpretations, we are left breathless because they have (been) so inspired.

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