Saturday, March 7, 2009

To perform from memory, or not?

With the performances just around the corner, I can not tell you how many people have asked if would be performing the six suites from memory.

Let me begin by saying that I strongly believe that in order to perform a piece well, one should know it from memory in all of its details.
However... should one always perform it without the music at least nearby?

I have decided that I will NOT perform the suites from memory!

While the ability to perform all suites from memory is hugely admirable, I don't think I could enjoy the performance the same way if I were to perform all six suites from memory. I would be too afraid I might loose sight of the "big picture", would feel restricted, too worried if I might possibly end up at the wrong end of a passage and having to improvise my way out of it.
Instead I think I would prefer having the music comfortably with me, giving me the freedom to re-invent my interpretation every time again.

I think that this way I would enjoy the performance.

How would the audience feel if I played from music? Would they care? Would the enjoy it more? Would they find it distracting? Would they find it embarrassing?

Some cultures emphasize the importance of performing from memory. The North American culture (if such a thing exists) is one of them, and so seem the Eastern European and Russian schools to be. For some of them there simply is "no other way".

When I am in an audience, I do not care if the performer does or does not have the music. What I care about is whether it is clear that the musician knows the music well and that the performance moves me.

I have, on occasion, felt very uncomfortable when musicians (some very famous ones!) lost their place and either had to start over or improvise to get out of their predicament. In those cases I never fully relaxed again in the audience, because; "what if he or she gets lost again?!"
Some musicians get consoled by the idea that even very seasoned performers get lost. "if it can happen to them, it does not matter so much that I struggle with these issues as well!"
I feel differently: "they" can get away with it; "they" will be forgiven very easily, given their status. However when I loose it in performance, I have to prove myself all over again.

On the other hand; I have listened to ill prepared performances where the performer was clearly just reading the notes. This too, is very uncomfortable, if not irritating, no matter how talented or famous the performer.

Hence my first sentence: in order to perform a piece well, one should know it from memory in all of its details.
For me, however, to be able to be creative, free, expressive and to enjoy it myself, I like to have the comfort of music in the vicinity.

Last fall I went to the second Amsterdam cello biennial. Every morning started with a different Bach suite, performed by a different cellist. These were all played from memory. At many other concerts including some cello concertos performed by very seasoned cellists, as well as most concerts involving cello and piano, the musicians had music in front of them.
I asked my former prof what he thought of the whole issue of memorizing. I remember that during my university years it was never insisted upon that we'd perform from memory, though we did need to be able to play the pieces from memory in our lessons.
He said: "you'd be an idiot to play that concert from memory" (referring to performing six Bach suites in one afternoon). Then he quoted famous Viola da Gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall to emphasize his point.
At a masterclass for Savall, one particular student was playing one of the gamba sonatas by Bach from memory. Savall apparently did not like that. Apparently he said "when you are playing from memory, you are placing yourself between the composer and the music. What you will hear is the performer, not the composer, and who are you to think you are better than Bach!"

You have to remember that I did not hear him say it first hand, so it may have been quoted incorrectly, but I do agree that for me, playing with the music, especially with the manuscript, allows me to interpret the composers wishes more truthfully.

Now that we are on the topic of manuscript: when you read manuscript, it gives you a great insight in the composers' head. Just by the way notes are grouped, slurs are placed, where notes are placed in relation to others, we tend to change the way we perform them.
Unfortunately we do not have an original copy by Bach of the suites. Thank goodness we have several good copies, including the one from his wife Anna Magdalena and some, that appear to have come from the same source, are remarkably similar. It gives us as close a glimpse into what he wrote as we can have.
Will I perform from one of those? Probably not, but they are always there when I practice. It is amazing how much the interpretation changes depending on which copy I play from!

This art of music writing will soon be lost forever. Many music students don't even learn to write music by hand anymore!
With composers largely writing on computers now we are on one hand relieved that we never again have to read badly copied scores but we are on the other hand sad, because we can no longer see the personality of the composer...