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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Performance Opportunities

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, third movement needs no introduction. Like Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man or Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude from his first unaccompanied violoncello suite in G major, it is a composition of such popularity that even the general public recalls its tune. That being said, any composition of Beethoven, Copland, or Bach has been analyzed, reanalyzed, opposed, undergone further analyzation, and chopped into more pieces than ground beef. Here I take yet another stab…

Beethoven is my sort of guy: when I write a rondo, I like to put “rondo” as the heading. Makes it much easier to decide whether it’s a theme and variation, composite ternary, or simple binary. Not that I’d get those mixed all that often but it’s a better bet to put this on the safe side. Since we have the important information out of the way, it’s my job to systematically impose my own opinions and ideas upon the piece (which isn’t hard). Through the process of elimination I’ve deduced that Beethoven has composed in the form of a seven part rondo; thus the form is as follows: ABA C ADA. Interestingly, Beethoven does what one would expect from a seven part rondo in terms of modulation. During the first episode the B section modulates to the relative minor of Eb major (or the III of C minor), the middle episode is in the key of VI or Ab major (hence all the strategically placed D flats) and the last episode’s B section remains within the original key of C minor. (Just to cover all my bases, the A sections are in the key of i, C minor. I realize that may be obvious, but…)

Artistically, a performer should recognize and emphasize each of these sections and attempt to practice them separately, developing a new voice for each part. After each section can stand on its own one should then work on transitions and blending the elided sections. There are places where Beethoven has not composed the sections to elide into the following section (i.e. measures 78 and 120), hence the suggestion to practice each portion as it were a composition by itself. By practicing this way a performer can convincingly execute a program with the possibility of surprising a sleepy audience member. We’ve all been to performances where we feel the piece is about to come to a close and bam! the PAC hits, we nearly jump to our feet (sometimes because we want to get out of that place) but instead of standing and bowing the performer continues with his musical instruction and bangs away on the instrument (typically leading to another half hour of pseudo-enjoyable music). In the best situations the excitement comes from an audience who expected one thing but got another and is now enjoying further entertainment. Nevertheless, it’s a performance aspect to always consider, especially when playing a piece as well known and loved as Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata.

Speaking of performance aspects leads to another discussion dealing primarily with the current acceptance of a “proper” recital. The now-common practice of walking out on stage, sitting, playing the “classics” note-perfect and walking out seems less audience-involved than a physician performing brain surgery on the Discovery channel. It’s an extremely dry, uninviting environment that will eventually lead to audiences finding other aspects of entertainment. I’m not one to argue for turning a senior recital into a Jerry Springer episode but I am an advocate for treating the audience as more than people who happened to drop by and listen to my run through. Make the performance thought provoking, make it engaging and make it enjoyable. What is music without fun? Some of the best examples may come from our jazz-playing counterparts who have a vocation that deals specifically with the reactions and interaction of the audience before, during, and after a performance. Shouldn’t that be the direction we as classical musicians should be looking? Our musical achievements are important and should be recognized by the musical community; let’s see if we can involve some of those outside academia into our world as well.

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