Improvisation, Virtuosos, and Poignancy Are The Missing Ingredients

Who is a concert about? Not what is it about, but who? If it’s a symphony orchestra concert, is it about the conductor? The players? If it’s a rock concert, is it about the lead guitarist? The drummer? The lead singer? To be sure, when we go to a concert we very well may be going to see a particular conductor, soloist, lead guitarist or singer, but are they there, on that stage for them, the performers, or us, the audience? 

I find the different approaches to concerts performers can take interesting. Rock bands and jazz bands tend to have a lead figure who talks and interacts with the audience. They tell stories, often about themselves or the group they are performing with, and sometimes tell a story about how a particular song came to be written. This is possible, because usually the songwriter or songwriters of the material being performed is right there on stage, maybe even is the one speaking.

In this concert, there is also likely to be a mix of new songs the audience has never heard before because they are brand new and haven’t been recorded yet, and songs that have been recorded, have become hits, and are familiar and loved by the audience. So you have a mix of old and new music. 

Classical music concerts were like this at one time also. When Beethoven gave a concert, he was presenting his music, either conducting it, or playing the solo piano in one of his own concertos, or playing unaccompanied piano solos, often improvised. It was also this way with other “masters” of eighteenth and nineteenth century European art music. Today, we tend to think of classical music as repertoire that conservatory graduates play, written by a handful of highly gifted composers who all died hundreds of years ago. But it wasn’t always so. When those composers were alive and had just written those pieces, it was all relatively new, and sometimes, at a premiere, very new. 

The excitement of seeing a virtuoso music performer play his own music has largely been ceded to rock, jazz and hip-hop artists in the present day. Whether we want to admit it or not, seeing a virtuoso lead guitarist improvise a dazzling solo at a rock concert can easily be more exciting that seeing a virtuoso violinist play a composed cadenza, or worse, one transcribed from one performed by an earlier great violinist, painstakingly practiced to perfection, and identical to the cadenza they played on their recording of the same work. Contrast that predictable outcome to anticipating that the soloist was going to amaze with an improvised cadenza they had never exactly played that way before, and in which they were going to press their musical prowess to their limits. Now that would be exciting. And it is exciting when that rock guitarist does it. It’s exciting when a great athlete does it, plying his abilities to succeed as overcoming the defense and making a great play. Consider the following Aaron Judge had while he cased Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, or while Alber Pujols chased his seven hundredth career home run. Why don’t classical soloists give us that “wait and see what I will do” anticipation anymore?

Now consider jazz. What is the most fun and exciting part of a jazz performance? Is it the “head?” No, it is witnessing the soloists skill and imagination manifested in what they do with the head, transforming it into, once again, an entirely improvised solo, unique to that performance, that pushes against the limits of what they can do. They show altissimo notes, blazing fast notes, or hardly any notes at all, but perfectly placed and spaced. The thrill of a speedy Coltrane, a minimalist Davis, or an eclectic Brubeck. All were geniuses. 

So what makes improvisation so special? I began by asking who a concert is about. An improviser feeds off the audience. They take their musical line to where they sense the audience wants them to go. The audience for their part can start cheering when they become delighted enough to feel compelled to do so, and this in turn influences the improvisor on where to go next. In this sense, the audience becomes a collaborator with the improvisor, actively participating in the music that is being made. None of this happens when every note is scripted and immovable. The audience is not allowed to cheer or even clap as the orchestra winds up for the exciting conclusion of the last movement of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, Mahler’s first symphony, or of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony, and even if they were allowed to cheer and clap along the way,(as they are on July 4th during the 1812 overture, or any performance of Stars and Stripes Forever) not much of what the orchestra does would be any different because it has all been carefully rehearsed, and must come off at least close to how it was practiced. Orchestras do get inspired during a performance, of course, but they are not free to interact with the audience, nor is the audience free to interact with them, the way they are at a jazz or rock concert. 

Another aspect of this is that at a symphony orchestra concert, very little if any of what is being done is new and even less is culturally relevant today. It’s all been played before, hundreds of times by hundreds of orchestras over hundreds of years. On the one hand, this music is considered a repertoire of masterpieces, worthy of continued and repeated playings, down through the ages. And it is worth preserving, just as much as great works of visual art, or great plays. But great works of visual art by masters are displayed along with great works by living or recent artists, and theaters perform plays well-aged masterpieces along side those by living or recent playwrights. These contemporary artistic works address contemporary, relevant issues that make them meaningful, even thought provoking by people who go to see them. Such works have been written by composers of art music. Following the nine-eleven tragedy, On The Transmigration of Souls was such a work, but it seems to have faded from interest. So too with Gorecki’s symphony no. 3, Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, or Shostakovich’s symphony no. 7, the so-called Leningrad symphony.  Who is writing poignant classical music about issues of today? Where are composers who are compelled to bring modern life into concert halls that will engage audiences, not drive them away with incomprehensible arrays of dissonances? And where are composer-performers, or at least composer-conductors, who can bring their own music to audiences? These modern-day composer where they can be found, do not get the attention they deserve and that presenters of classical music need. For example, the next time an orchestra has in mind to program Grand Canyon Suite, consider Jennifer Hidgeon’s All Things Majestic instead.

Symphony orchestras need this kind of new music, and they need a resurgence of virtuosic improvisors who will bring excitement and uniqueness to every performance, even those of works that the audience has heard many times before. We can talk about outreach programs, advertising campaigns, educational programs and so forth, but ultimately what will really matter is what the audience gets out of a concert experience. It’s no fun to just sit quietly and observe. Audiences don’t need to do that anywhere else. At plays they can laugh and clap during the show, at other kinds of concerts they can cheer and clap and dance. Not all of that will work at a symphony concert, but some of it will. The key is to involve the audience while they are there. There has to be something more for the audience to do than to talk about the concert in the car on the way home or in a restaurant with whoever they came with. 

One thought on “Improvisation, Virtuosos, and Poignancy Are The Missing Ingredients

  1. Loved this: “The thrill of a speedy Coltrane, a minimalist Davis, or an eclectic Brubeck.”- Oh the joy it must have been to be in a live audience with these legends! One can only imagine…

    “There has to be something more for the audience to do than to talk about the concert in the car on the way home or in a restaurant with whoever they came with.” This is a very true point. By the time the concert has been talked about or raved about among social circles, the concert or even tour has finished!

    I think there are ways now that social media has given promotion to such concerts – the idea of ‘checking in’ or ‘looking forward to an event’ etc… but REAL involvement is another level. Some of my favourite drumming sessions were when I helped out with local community workshops involving all ages and abilities. There were time also though, admittedly where chaos ensued simply due to the high numbers of interacting members volume and lack of substantial volunteers to assist. More resources are needed for this kind of thing such as sufficient vocal amplification for leaders! I guess there has to be a balance between control and involvement when organising such musical explorations. Worth it though!

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