Not showing off

24th January 2012 | Concerts, Inspirations, Musings | 3 comments

Went to a lovely concert given by a group of distinguished European string players in memory of the Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh, whose centenary falls this year. Sandor Vegh founded the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, an inspiration to many of today’s leading players.

At the concert there were two different string quartet groups, giving me the chance to listen to two of my favourite violinists as quartet leaders. Readers of this blog already know how much I admire Viennese violinist Erich Höbarth, with whom I’m halfway through a Mozart Series in Perth Concert Hall. The other quartet was led by American violinist Daniel Phillips of the New-York-based Orion Quartet.

Both these players are to my way of thinking ideal examples of how to approach chamber music. Their performances are totally focused, without ever showing off or deliberately drawing attention to themselves for effect. Many musicians add a layer of ‘mime’ to signal their feelings and point out certain musical twists and turns to the audience. I can’t dismiss this kind of approach, as I know from experience that many audience members like it, even rely on it. However, speaking for myself, I’m more fascinated by musicians whose gestures are economical and whose concentration draws the audience in. Any dramatic visual effects arise from their efforts to express the music, but otherwise their understanding is transmitted entirely in sound. It feels as if the music is too important for mere display. This is not to say, of course, that they are not interesting to watch – on the contrary. They are interesting precisely because they are not trying to manipulate what I see.


  1. Rob4

    A few years ago I saw viola deity Yuri Bashmet play at the Erin Arts Centre in the Isle of Man.
    Younger players took the stage first, bowing and swaying around dramatically with every note.
    Then Yuri came on, looking like something between Dracula and a gothic rock star. He adopted a stance that was almost a slouch and during the entire performance moved nothing but his bowing arm. Otherwise he stood, or slouched, absolutely still and displayed no physical expression whatsoever.
    Needless to say, it was by far the most arresting performance of the night!

  2. Steve Zade

    I do agree with Rob4, but I think that it is difficult, both with performers and conductors, to make a general rule about emotional display. Perhaps the important difference is between putting on a show and being genuinely transported by the music. It has often been said that physical gestures interfere with instrumental technique, but Jacqueline du Pré, a real mover with head and hair flying all over the place, did play magnificently. Many jazz musicians also combine inspired performance with a lot of moving about.

  3. Susan Tomes

    I remember Sandor Vegh being very funny about people who moved about a lot when they played. He said that if violinists constantly changed the plane where the bow meets the violin, it makes everything harder to control. He alleged that pianists were lucky, because the piano keyboard is in a fixed position, and there’s a limit to how much mayhem a pianist can cause by swaying about!


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