Guest post by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson
Remember how, almost as soon as the Second World War ended, Britain passed on Churchill and elected a Labour government that created the National Health Service? We’re not at war, whatever governments like to say. But it’s possible that we may come out of this coronavirus crisis with a changed sense of what really matters.
Musicians—venues closed, audiences staying home—are responding with generosity and humanity, playing online from home for anyone who wants to listen. This is a wonderful thing. We seem to be rediscovering music-making as something you do in homes, for friends, intimately, in performances that don’t have to be completely perfect and whose value lies in their spontaneity and intensity: they communicate, they comfort; their kindness is part of their artistry, their conviction, in fact their truth. These are not shows, they are offers; and they are the more valued for that.
In these exchanges, musicians and listeners are meeting directly, through their own arrangements; unmediated by managers, planners, venues, fixers; undistracted and unmonitored by critics. The longer this lasts the more thought will be put into the way pieces may be played when such constraining figures are absent. The chance to try a score differently, to see what happens if…: these may begin to foster enough creativity to make this hiatus something more than just a weird interruption in the status quo. Yes, we want venues to open, we want the audiences coming to them, we really need that income; but will we want to go all the way back to artistic business as usual?
How can we retain these values—intimacy, generosity, direct communication, the exchange of fresh ideas and sympathetic attention—how can we retain them in concert life? Let’s have a conversation about it now, while we have the chance. What do we really wish professional musical life to be like?
Let’s talk. We won’t all agree (let’s hope not). But to get us started I suggest three desiderata. More time to work together in preparing performances. Fewer pressures constraining how we make music from scores. More direct communication with listeners.
For the last of these, we’re learning every day at the moment the value of being in direct touch. Wouldn’t it be great to have more concerts planned and publicised online, held in less formal venues, announced at shorter notice?
The first and the second—more preparation, fewer pressures to conform—are bound together. There are so many other ways of getting these scores to work, and more time allows us to discover them. The rewards of making great music in persuasive performances that have never been heard before are intense: real joy in performing once more. It’s just not true that there is broadly one perfect performance, the one that everyone is trying and failing to give, the way the piece is ‘supposed’ to go. That’s the myth that holds us in thrall to teachers, managers, recording companies, producers, critics. ‘I know what the composer wants’ (note the self-serving present tense). ‘Play it as I tell you if you want work.’ That’s what we have to refuse when all this is over.
I’ve made a detailed online case for this, aimed at young professional performers. It’s free at challengingperformance.com/the-book if you want to think about these questions further. Or we can start with a conversation. But let’s use this time really well so that, when it’s past, we don’t make do with business as usual.
Daniel Leech-Wilkinson is a musicologist, and Emeritus Professor of Music at King’s College, London
Twitter @danleechw @ChalPerformance