Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rule no. 1 - The composer is always right!

Rule no. 2 - When the composer is wrong, look at rule no. 1...

Wait! Stop! It is slightly more complicated than that.

These past few months I have been juggling between two different piano concerti. Both are new to me, and although at an opposite realm, interestingly they raised similar questions. I am referring to Chopin's concerto no. 2, and Avner Dorman's new piano concerto "Lost Souls". The first of these has already proven itself through the test of time, while the other is barely four months old.

When learning these two wonderful works, a number of times I came across places that made me wonder whether the composer perhaps made a mistake. Maybe a wrong note... should I change it? a wrong choice of register... should I take it up an octave? possibly too many notes... can I drop a few?

The Dorman concerto, in a way, is still a "piece in process and progress"... It is not "finished", and I have the composer "at hand" to ask. A great and unique partnership is created when composer and performer collaborate and nourish each other. With Chopin, though, it is somewhat different. Can I have any doubts about what is in front of me?

What was fascinating was that through working on the Dorman concerto (with the composer), and experiencing the evolution of the piece, I began to challenge the Chopin concerto with questions. These questions Chopin did not need to answer. This was my "job". The questions ranged from choice of dynamics, articulation markings, texture, and even form. A real conversation emerged which at times became a loud argument between me and the piece.

I belong to a "school" that proclaims that the performer is at the service of the music. He needs to convey the message behind the notes. The music is at the center – it is "the star", while the performer, although absolutely indispensable, is the tool that translate those black dots on the page, and inject life into them.

I said "at the service of the music". Does this also mean at the service of the composer? Can the composer be separated from his music?

The late composer Ben Zion Orgad told me once that "if a piece is good, then at a certain point it spreads its wings and fly away from the composer. It becomes independent of its creator." This is a profound statement! It can be liberating for the performer but also dangerous. The composer is the creator. He knows what he wants! The performer, however, is the one that will make the work… work. What happens then when the performer has a different view of the piece than the composer? This is a VERY delicate issue.

I remember years ago when Ben Zion Orgad gave me his newest piano work.It had no dynamics or articulation markings! He asked me to add them. In the process of learning the piece I added my interpretative markings (including articulations and dynamics). He then showed me the same piece, this time though, with all his desired markings and we compared. To a large extent we were identical, and at the places that we differed, it was very difficult for me to accept his requests. By making me part of the creative process, I also became the creator. Taking this a step further, however we look at this, we - performers are also creators! Fortunately, I played Orgad's new work numerous times, and gave it different interpretations - with his markings, and mine – both sounded convincing.

Several times throughout my life I was asked about the opportunities to work with living composers. And my response always came as somewhat of a surprise. To work with composers such as Orgad, or Dorman is a revelation, regardless of whether it is on their pieces or someone else. I learned a lot from them because they are very creative, imaginative and I trust their ears. That applies to whatever piece I play for them. It might actually be theirs...

I believe that everything there is to know about the music is on the page, and the answers are between those little black dots. What is between those "dots" tells the performer the message, the story of the piece. The beauty is that it can and should tell different stories to different performers, which may be indeed different than the composer's story. I guess this is part of what we call interpretation.

At a Gala presentation event in Kansas City before the world premiere of his concerto, Avner Dorman shared with the audience the narrative behind his new piece. This narrative I did not hear until that point. By that time, I already developed my own concept and story of the piece, and it was quite different. Who is right then? No doubt, Avner!! After all he wrote the piece. However, if we want the piece to have a life of its own then new narratives, new stories, new questions about interpretation, articulation etc, are all relevant and are all an integral part of the internal dialogue that is created between the music, the performer, the audience and.... oh, yes, the composer as well.

Alon Goldstein