This is a blog post from 18 December last year, while I was touring with Keith Crellin for Chamber Music Australia, auditioning groups for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition that has just finished. One or two of the thoughts are repeated in the previous post about repertoire (so shoot me).
Music is not a language: music is like a language. It’s my opinion, and not what I’m going to write about here, but it serves to show that (again, in my opinion) there’s a big difference between an analogy and a declaration of equivalence. The trouble with using analogies, which are addictively useful, is that it’s often difficult to know how far to stretch them, to what they apply and to what they don’t, and when to stop. I feel like indulging, so please bear with.
Keith and I are about to embark on the final leg of this fascinating and very enjoyable audition tour. We have heard thirty groups in four cities, and been delighted and privileged to be treated to private performances of great music played by many fine young colleagues. I have spent most of the tour so far making copious notes, and re-reading them, pondering what I have heard and discussing at length with my very pleasant travelling companion. Because most of my previous experience in adjudicating has been either alone or on juries, in which discussion is usually strictly forbidden, for good reasons, the opportunity to exchange views freely has been refreshing and liberating. I have been learning a lot from Keith, and he seems to have relished the reciprocation. Without wishing to speak for another, I believe that we are pretty much on the same page regarding the art and craft of playing, although, when it comes to inner feelings, we are all undoubtedly and aptly different.
Among the groups, there have been those who have spent years together; there are those who have formed this year, last year, and one which replaced a pianist last week; there are those who play with near immaculate technical precision; there are those who are relatively rough, and show a myriad technical shortcomings; there are those who seem formal in approach, who might or might not be what is quaintly called ‘historically informed’; there are those comprising members who seem very well suited to playing with their confrères, those who seem more motley; there was at least one player who was crying as she played; there was one who seemed angry; and there have been a few ensembles who have brought a frisson, for reasons that don’t really need much analysis. And so on. And yet, with so many, many factors in play, and so many ways to listen to them, consider them, sort them, there is one aspect that remains at the core of all good playing: enjoyment, and the ability to impart it so that it becomes shared.
My analogy, which I will now proceed to stretch, ridiculously, is that ‘playing’ an instrument is just that, in a sense. Beyond and inclusive of all the discipline and learned skills, without play, the activity of music is forlorn and perfunctory. The particular beauty of chamber music is often said to relate to an intimate conversation, and I’d agree with that, except that I’d insist that it be a playful conversation in some way. I like to hear a small group playing as if they were sharing a game, and that that game delighted and surprised them as they went along. Listening to a solo performance, I want the same thing, but the nature of the game might be quite different: it’s like the difference between watching mixed doubles, perhaps (string quartet) and someone playing solitaire. I told you about analogies, didn’t I? Duets: chess? Trios: Monopoly? I don’t know.
Listening to young players is often fascinating, and this tour has been nothing if not fascinating. We will welcome some ensembles to Melbourne next year who will delight, charm and probably touch and win hearts. I hope and believe that we will hear the best that is on offer from the world’s young professionals, and that their youth will not be camouflaged or subdued by the maturity and respect due to music that is also necessary for the true interpretation of the classics that we love. It occurs to me, though, that some of the most playful people I have known, paradoxically, are also some of the oldest, which goes to show that playfulness, or its lack, is not necessarily proportionate to age and experience. And I’m very glad about that.
So, if anything, I would like our young groups to revel in their youth and their growing maturity, both, and never be ashamed or inhibited from playing the great game of music, with a child-like quality, nourished and protected. Mozart did, and if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for us, nicht Wahr?