Reading this article about Carrie Dennis, principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, offers more evidence that today's audiences mostly listen with their eyes. Although I admit that we are a visually preoccupied society, what with internet and videos, I remain old school when it comes to mentoring my students, for I believe a compelling artist allows the music to flow naturally, with ease, and speak for itself. Histrionics, in my opinion, distract from interpretive style, nobility, and technique. The playing of a thrasher becomes unreliant; precision of intonation and focused sound is ultimately lost; the direction of a flailing instrument can be likened to a moving target. Inflections and nuances which need to be subtly rendered become heavy-handed and overly accented. Thank you, but I do not wish to be hit over the head with an interpretive idea or a beat pattern.
It is sobering to realize that for today's concert-goers and ticket buyers, musicians are expected to satisfy the viewing more than the listening. In the case of Ms. Dennis, who is undeniably a capable player (I listened to her here and here), I can't imagine that her colleagues in the Los Angeles Philharmonic are equally pleased by her gyrations; do they coincide with the conductor's gestures or do they confuse? Are these excessive pop-star like moves simply a release of nervous, pent-up energy? Does it really serve the music to telegraph every delicate phrase with motions which might create whiplash, nausea, or at the very least, cause potential injuries to others? Even Ms. Dennis admits that her thrashings have caused a few collisions.
"Sometimes I get Dale Silverman's scroll (the top of her neighbor's viola) at my head. At Curtis my stand partner whipped her bow across my forehead and it drew blood."
Ilkka and I had, years ago, the strange experience of hosting a violinist with, what I believe to have had a split personality. One day she was Esther, and another day she was a whole new entity. No matter, although we were never quite certain which of those entities we had in front of us; we taught her and accommodated her needs, gratis. In any case, this young lady was a highly gifted player, with good chops, as they say in this business, meaning solid technique. She had been primarily trained in the Netherlands, where her main teacher had coached her to perform a succession of choreographic moves meant to bedazzle audiences. To a point, I suppose it worked. The audience gasped as our guest held up her finger after a prolonged pizzicato passage in Ravel's "Tzigane,"as if the poor finger had been torn to shreds. But the show turned over-the-top when spoiled intonation and marred rhythms were disguised with foot stomps and head bobs, as if to somehow compensate for defects.
There are a few of us left with respect for artists, such as Hilary Hahn and Yury Bashmet, that are able to turn the attention to the music itself and convey originality rather than display their tics. I hope this current trend of self-absorbed mediocrity and fakery will fade out. Introducing Anna Karkowska!