December 21, 2010

Making Schubert their own, so they can share it with us

My colleagues at Slover Linett tease me about being unable to write a brief blog post. So here, as a holiday gift to them, are some quick thoughts about the difference between playing classical music and playing with it (as in, playing with an idea). Three guys with three pianos in the East Village are currently doing both.

The show is “Three Pianos,” and it’s an antic, clever, casual, time-bending, personal riff on Franz Schubert’s wistful 1827 song cycle “Winterreise.” But it’s also a performance of that cycle, all twenty-four songs in one arrangement or another. Like the Peter Greenaway “vision” of Leonardo’s Last Supper that I just wrote about (here and here), it’s a contemporary artwork that enthusiastically and freely reinterprets an older one. 

I’ve often wondered why conductors don’t give themselves the license that theater directors do to alter a classic text (score, script) to suit their personal vision. In classical music, it’s all about “the composer’s intentions,” and the conductor and musicians are meant to get out of the way of the music. Sure, you’re expected to tailor tempos and phrasing and thereby create “your interpretation.” But compare that latitude to the creative freedom of theater, where — think of the last Shakespeare production you saw — the director can cut and paste lines or whole scenes, change characters’ genders, shift the action to different eras and contexts, and generally make it his or her own.

Neil Genzlinger makes the same comparison in his review of “Three Pianos” in this morning’s NY Times: “They do to ‘Winterreise’ roughly what the fractured-Shakespeare troupes do to ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth,’ enlivening through deconstruction.” Purists, of course, may prefer to attend a standard recital of Schubert, and some might not even define what goes on in “Three Pianos” as a performance of “Winterreise.” They want a direct line to Schubert, as provided by a well-dressed singer and pianist whose own personalities and perspectives aren’t a big part of the evening.

But others — and I bet this is a larger and faster-growing segment of the population than most classical music professionals would like to believe — would feel much more connected to Schubert if three guys messed around with him. (Especially if they poured wine for the audience while doing so, as the creator-performers of “Three Pianos” do, liberally.) The difference has to do with that sense of ownership, of someone on stage being in an intimate, human, creative relationship with the music and even with the composer — not just a musical relationship. ...

I promised to keep this short, so forgive me if this is schematic: In the conventional ideal, the singer or musician is essentially meant to disappear, to be a conduit. So in an important sense he or she isn’t present to us. There’s an intentional absence, a space left for something to happen. But that absence means nobody’s modeling that “something” for us, nobody’s demonstrating the kind of personal, active connection with Shubert and his music that’s possible. 

Which is exactly what the “Three Pianos” guys do: they show us what “Winterreise” means to them: how and why they love it. The feeling is infectious. To connect to the performers is to share their connection to Schubert.

Isn’t that connection what people have with all the forms of creativity and culture that they love, including pop culture? And isn’t its absence what keeps them away from classical music?

There’s a sharp irony here. Maybe we get closer to the music when somebody creatively “gets in the way” than when they try to step out of the way, because there’s something instinctively, contagiously appealing about seeing a fellow human being celebrate something that matters to them.

If you’re in NY this holiday season, see for yourself. “Three Pianos” runs at the New York Theater Workshop through January 9. Let me know how it strikes you.


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