Differing tastes

1st October 2011 | Concerts, Musings, Travel | 14 comments

Trondheim warehousesIn the wake of the Trondheim competition, I’ve been thinking about the gap between the jury’s taste and the public’s taste in performers. Several times during the competition I happened to bump into members of the public in the coffee shop, or in the foyers of the concert hall, and got chatting to them about their favourite players in the competition. I couldn’t tell them what I thought, of course, but I allowed myself to ask them for their views.

I was repeatedly struck by the fact that their selection was never the same as the jury’s. It’s probably simplistic to say so, but I often felt the public’s approval tended to fall on groups with a very showy platform manner, groups who had taken great trouble over their appearance, or groups which happened to feature a particularly good-looking person. The jury was not immune to those factors, naturally, but they came lower down our list of priorities. Maybe I just happened upon an un-representative selection of audience members, but I became conscious of their disappointment when certain groups didn’t do as well as they had expected. There was no forum in which the jury could explain what they were listening for and why – the audience just had to accept our decisions, as the competitors did. But I was a little sad that we and the audience didn’t always see eye to eye on those decisions. For one thing, I’d like to think that the jury is identifying a new generation of musicians whom the public will love and appreciate.


  1. Ivan Huke

    Susan: This reminds me of the article in one of your books – about the American lady who spotted you at the airport the day after a concert and seemed far more interested in what you (and the orchestra) wore than in the quality of your music!

  2. James B

    It must be difficult to be on the jury, especially if you’ve played a piece yourself many times and have quite set ideas about appropriate tempi, dynamics, etc.

    I think that if I were to judge a chamber music performance I’d probably look most of all for a sense of combined musicality, of each player operating both independently but as part of a single ensemble. I also love seeing the performers enjoying themselves! I suppose that this is part of the reason why established trios/quartets are more famous and sell more recordings – they develop a lovely sense of cohesion.

    It is, however, a shame that there is no opportunity for the judges to speak to the audience about their choices.
    As a child competing in various music festivals in rural Western Australia we always loved the yearly visit by the judge (usually some dear old woman from the city) who breathed new air into our little musical community with her insightful comments – sometimes right and sometimes quite wrong – always thought provoking, giving praise where it was due and suggesting improvements. Perhaps adult performers wouldn’t be so keen to hear themselves criticized about musical decision they’ve made with the best of intentions, though!

    • Susan Tomes

      Yes, I think you’re right: advanced players might not enjoy hearing a public critique of their performance. Most who enter competitions probably just do so because competitions can be a portal to engagements they wouldn’t otherwise be offered, or at least not so quickly. When I was a student, there were hardly any competitions. Now there are so many that ‘early career’ musicians can plan a year or two of just going from one competition to another, amassing prize money and concert opportunities.

  3. James B

    Interesting response, Susan! Being an ‘early career’ musician suddenly sounds very appealling… a life of ease and prize money (for the successful few, I’m sure!)

    Speaking of differing tastes, I’m in a quandary that I hardly ever dare mention. The fact is that my taste seems to be drawn more and more towards Schubert’s music and less and less towards Beethoven. I appreciate Schubert’s adoration of Mozart whilst Beethoven so often seems to be bombastic and unsubtle…

    Now, you’re a lauded performer of both composers and I wonder if you can tell me what it is about Beethoven’s music that appeals to you?! Perhaps an idea for another post!

  4. peter

    You raise something that has always intrigued me, Susan. Chamber musicians spend an enormous amount of time in rehearsal playing together, agreeing an interpretation, and learning to finely co-ordinate their musical actions (at least the good ones do). Yet, only rarely have I seen a chamber music ensemble who have co-ordinated or practiced their bowing to the audience at the end of a concert. Even leaving the stage and returning during applause is sometimes a shemozzle of unco-ordinated clashing egos, with no practiced routine of who walks when and where. Why does the professionalism evident in the performance itself so rarely continue after the players have stood up?

  5. peter

    I agree with you, James B. The music of Beethoven is very often bombastic and disagreeable in comparison to that of his contemporaries, Schubert or Mendelssohn or Arriaga or Hummel. His chamber music is very good, but it ain’t a patch on Schubert’s or Mendelssohn’s. The difference is like that between a person calmly speaking with you in mutual, polite conversation versus a madman pulling at your collar for your attention, in Beethoven’s case. If you were judging the character of the person on the basis of their music, you’d steer very clear of the rude and unpleasant Ludwig van B.

  6. Susan Tomes

    Well, one man’s ‘bombastic and disagreeable’ is another man’s ‘forceful and eloquent’, I suppose. I do know what you mean about Beethoven, yet I think my journey has been the other way – from not appreciating him so much in earlier years, to seeing the point of his music more and more. Not all of it, though! As you say, the chamber music is marvellous, and surely the string quartets are amongst the best music that we have?

  7. Susan Tomes

    I forgot to comment on Peter’s question about why musicians are so unprofessional about how they bow to the audience. Yes, this is a subject that has amused friends of mine who are dancers. They also think that musicians stumble about on stage in a strangely un-coordinated way. I can only say that it isn’t something many musicians attach a great deal of importance to, and in a way I like it that they don’t. Amongst younger musicians there is more awareness of ‘image’ on stage. I haven’t noticed that it has much to do with how talented or expressive they are as musicians, though.

  8. Steve Zade

    What a brave brace of barefaced Beethoven-bashers you make, James B and Peter. In the end it is a matter of taste, but berating Beethoven as bombastic beggars belief.

  9. James B

    Don’t get me wrong, Steve Zade, I’m the first one to be sobbing uncontrollably at the end of the Egmont Overture! The fact of the matter is that I do prefer Schubert, particularly when performed in Susan’s subtly sophisticated and sensitively stylish way!

    I’m sure she’d play the Beethoven sonatas divinely, I can imagine her finishing the Waldstein with hardly a hair out of place!

    I just had a thought… haven’t all of the complete Beethoven recording cycles been by men?! Now, who could rectify that?!

  10. Rob

    I agree with you Susan regarding the importance of coordinated bowing on stage. These days you often see younger professionals execute this part of a performance in a way that I find is ‘too staged’!! You often get to witness a very small glimpse of a musician’s true personality by the way they bow and walk on and off the stage. Look at the pianist Martha Argerich for example. She often looks very awkward and modest after finishing some of her fine performances, but I personally find this a very endearing aspect of seeing her perform live.

  11. peter

    Steve Zade: Tastes do certainly differ. My belief is beggared by someone claiming not to hear the bombast in Beethoven’s music! The works of Mozart and Schubert and Mendelssohn (and many others besides) are subtle and nuanced in comparison. Beethoven wears his heart on his sleeve and shouts loudly about his internal feelings, whether we want to hear about these or no.

    Why, one wonders, do so many works by Beethoven come to a halt in mid-movement, with everything stopping and having to restart – symphony orchestras reduced to just 1 or 2 players, long pauses, bars of no sound at all. Has he just cried himself hoarse, or was the earlier shouting in his music mere attention-grabbing, like some child who wants the attention of his parents yet has nothing of substance to say to them once it is gained?

    And that’s not even mentioning Beethoven’s inability to write a good tune! He can certainly develop a theme (note, a theme, not a tune) in intellectually and harmonically interesting ways, once he gets going. But actual tunes were almost never his thing – again, unlike Mozart and Schubert and Mendelssohn.

    Vastly over-rated is Beethoven’s music, and unpleasant to boot IMO. Yes, tastes do differ.

  12. James B

    Come now, Sir. Beethoven wrote some lovely slow movement tunes – and think of the 9th Symphony which contains the tune to end all tunes (almost).

    The great transcriber, Franz Liszt, was constantly transcribing everything he heard and enjoyed. That meant a lot of Wagner, a bit of Mozart, but most emphatically multitudes of Beethoven and Schubert. Beethoven was a great composer, Schubert was a miracle.

  13. Steve Zade

    Would this brimstone belligerence, belittling Beethoven be a bee in a bonnet?


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