24 October 2014

Live Once and Go


The opening of the Klais organ of the Esplanade concert hall in Singapore in 2000 was marked by a series of imaginative and exciting events which did much to promote the organ in Singapore.  How sad, then, that the organ programme there seems to have run out of steam; not, I hasten to add, for want of imagination or care in planning, but because it would seem that higher management felt that the organ was too much of a niche market for the resources and energy involved in running a recital series. (Although can there be any sane person in arts’ management who does not realise that all areas of classical music – if not the arts in general – is very much a niche market?)  The actual inaugural recital for the organ was given by Thomas Trotter; and a pretty phenomenal performance it was too, with a superb programme dazzlingly played and brilliantly presented.  The next morning, a local organist was scheduled to show off the organ’s various features in another informal recital.  While Trotter’s programme had been announced well in advance, the local organist had not listed a programme, and so it caused a certain amount of bemusement amongst the gaggle of organists who attended both when, for the morning recital, it transpired that the local organist was to play some of the music Trotter had performed at his recital the previous evening.

Sadly, the local organist was no match for Trotter in terms of technique, musicianship or presentation skills, and those who had been there the previous evening found it difficult to take the morning performance seriously.  Why, we asked ourselves, would any half-intelligent organist willingly embark on a head-to-head with one of the undisputed giants of the genre?  The only logical answer we could find was that the local organist had felt that it might be interesting to hear two different performances of the same music on the same organ.  Unfortunately, so different was the latter player’s attempt from the former’s that, far from being illuminating, it was downright embarrassing.

I am reminded of that strange occurrence because a course I have been running for university students which involved comparing several different recorded performances of the same work has, because of my extended absence, been taken over by another lecturer who has suggested that, rather than compare recorded performances, it might be a good idea for the students to compare different live performances.  Initially, I could see no reason why not, but then, on deeper reflection, I now see a great many reasons why it would be an exceptionally bad idea.

Performances on record – be they studio recordings or recordings made from “live” performances – do work to the same goals.  They are performing to an individual, listening in the clinical environment of an electronic playback device.  The atmosphere, occasion and environment in which the performance is heard is identical on every occasion (and as the audience chooses the date, time and place of the performance, we can assume the circumstances are pretty much the same each time), so the different performances are, in effect, presented on a level playing field.  By comparing like with like one can come up with a coherent argument as to why one is better than the other.

Such is not the case with a live performance where the atmosphere, occasion and environment are very different each time.  Orchestras who present the same programme on consecutive occasions in the same building will be the first to acknowledge that there is a wealth of difference between these performances, largely governed by the atmosphere in the hall which is, in itself, dictated not by the music but by the audience, who may be eager, restless, be sitting in silent anticipation or noisy distraction.  A gaggle of noisy children in the front row on the Friday may unsettle the audience, while a half-empty hall on the Saturday will depress the performers.  The performance itself will be affected by perceived responses from the audience as the music progresses, and a great performance on a Friday night can become a dismal one on the Saturday not because of any change in the quality of music-making, but by the way in which the audience’s reaction colours the commitment or otherwise of the individual players. 

On top of that, as recorded performances are intended to be played over and over again, small passing errors have to be expunged; in so-called “live” recordings, those corrections are made in subsequent patching sessions which are usually done without an audience present.  I’ve recently had for review one of the few discs I know where the recording is of a genuine live performance which has not been subjected to subsequent patching; and pretty odd it is too, with wrong notes, coughs, traffic noise and a few technical blemishes from the engineers becoming disproportionately obstructive to enjoyment on each occasion the disc is played.  I’m sure those who were at the deeply impressive live performance find the recording a heart-warming souvenir reinforcing their memories of a marvellous concert; those who were not there can only wonder what all the fuss is about as an errant clarinet squawks harshly during a general pianissimo and a recalcitrant audience member coughs heartily beneath a microphone.  The music’s there, somewhere, but it’s as if you are trying to reach it through a fog of ancillary noises.

The problem with setting out to compare live performances is that they can never be assessed in the same, virtually identical circumstances as a recorded performance.  Asking my replacement lecturer how the live assessments were to be made, she suggested that three or four students should each play the same work, on the same piano, in the same auditorium and to the same audience in immediate succession.  There are huge problems with this.  If the music is not generally known to the listener, then the very first performance they hear will seriously affect their judgements of all the subsequent ones.  The first performance may be poor – full of wrong notes and errors of judgement – but it will be the one the audience uses to establish the yardstick by which the subsequent performances are measured, and if those performances are better, the audience could well think them worse, because they sound different from the first they heard.  On top of that, an audience tires of hearing the same work played repeatedly, and the last performance is likely to receive a less sympathetic hearing than, say, the second.  There is simply no way anyone can fairly compare live performances.

But, when all is said and done, what is the point?  The live performance is geared to a certain occasion and wins or loses on its own merits; interpretation of the music is only a part of the totality.  Much as we may nostalgically look back on live performances we have enjoyed – “I much preferred Andrew Davis’s performance of Walton’s First Symphony at the Proms in 1990 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to Abdul Omar with the Malaysian Symphony in Kuala Lumpur in 2009” – the distance, geographical, chronological and experiential, negates anything other than an emotional response.  By their very nature, live performances are transitory, and attempting to preserve them by comparing them with others is to fundamentally misunderstand the whole point of a live musical performance.

Our Singaporean organist may be an excellent player, be possessed of a superb technique and incisive musicianship, but I can never recognise these qualities because my judgement has been so seriously clouded by the unfair comparison I was forced to make all those years ago.