You own the concert

Performers understand the notion of “taking ownership” of a piece of music – making it their own by understanding the work in depth and bringing their own musical insights, life experience and personality to it to create a performance that is colourful and, more importantly, convincing and memorable.

While watching and commenting on the Leeds Piano Competition, an email exchange with a blogging friend of mine who was actually present at the concerto finals about our personal responses to hearing music, in particular in a live concert setting, reminded me that as a listener we can also take ownership of a performance.

Listening to music is a highly subjective and personal experience. I go to many concerts, often with friends and discussions during the interval and afterwards reveal that we each take from a concert something that is deeply personal to us alone – and that includes negative experiences as well as positive ones.

It’s enjoyable and stimulating to discuss a concert with others, in the pub or via social media, but it can be frustrating when people assert their views with the express intention of trying to compete with someone else’s opinion or to suggest the other’s opinion or response to the concert is less valuable or meaningful than theirs. This can have the effect of diminishing the experience of a concert (on occasion has led me to wonder if I might have something wrong with my hearing…..)

The responses in the press and from friends who’d also attended Ivo Pogorelich’s last concert in London in 2015 is one such example. “Oh it was terrible!” one friend exclaimed after the event. “Fistfuls of wrong notes, erratic tempos and just so much wrong with his playing!“. The mainstream press eviscerated Pogorelich in their reviews, questioning not only his pianistic abilities but his reasons for daring to appear in London in the first place when he clearly wasn’t up to the job (itself a questionable assertion by a critic who probably couldn’t even play Happy Birthday on the piano from memory…..). I found the concert memorable for all sorts of reasons – yes, there was some peculiar playing, very personal and at times erratic, but there was also some incredible, thrilling and really beautiful playing (notably in the Brahms Paganini Variations). There were times when the narrative of the evening seemed to unfold like a Shakespearean tragedy (my personal feeling was that Pogorelich really didn’t want to give the concert), and a peculiar, almost comedic interaction with the page turner. At the end Pogorelich received a standing ovation – a reaction which a number of critics questioned. But for those people who stood to applaud, their actions were entirely justified, because they felt he deserved it. And in doing so, they took ownership of the concert, each in their own way.

I too took ownership of that concert. Tired of people who had simply read the reviews in The Times, The Telegraph et al, but didn’t actually attend, telling me that Pogorelich’s career was “over” or that he should never be “allowed” to give a concert again, I simply replied “You weren’t there“. It was an extraordinary evening, and one I won’t forget in a hurry. A shame then that the comments and views of others rather undermined my experience.

Piotr Anderszewski

A similar thing happened after I’d attended a concert by Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, a pianist I much admire and try to hear every time he is in London. An acquaintance of mine wrote to me after reading my review and bluntly stated that this pianist was “a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes” – but without actually explaining why.

It seems that some people feel the need to make such comments under the pretence of offering a critique when in fact all they are doing is trying to compete with or undermine someone else’s opinion or experience. But I know how I felt about Anderszewski’s performance, or indeed Krystian Zimerman’s 2017 Schubert Sonatas disc for that matter: those are my personal responses to the performances and the music, and are experiences which I own.

A similar scenario occurs when people turn to reviews in the press: if [insert name of well-known broadsheet newspaper here] says such-and-such a performer/concert/opera production is good/indifferent/shockingly bad it must be true. This attitude forgets that the critic is simply offering an opinion, not an empirical truth.

Our personal responses to music, concerts and performances are incredibly important, and contribute to an ongoing experience. Some concerts stand out more than others, the memory of them a potent lasting connection to the original event (I can still recall very vividly hearing the British pianist John Lill perform Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata at the Southbank in the early 1980s. An engrossing, emotionally-charged evening, when he came to take his bow, he looked utterly shattered: I think it was the first time I realised just how bloody hard, physically and mentally, playing the piano can be).

Treasure your listening experiences and don’t let anyone else’s comments or critique diminish them. They are your experiences and yours alone: you own that concert.


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