The Visuals

The Visuals

Now, maybe I’m not really the person to write this article (reason below); but I’m going to write it anyway. It was partially inspired by a question I was asked recently during an interview at the Library of Congress: ‘What do you think of the emphasis on appearance in the music world today?’ (or words to that effect).

The reason that I hesitate to rant on this particular subject is that, on the rare occasions that I see a video of myself playing, I tend to be horrified by the faces I make (plus the hair-tossing – though no-one who cannot do that can know how good it feels!) However, I have to assert in my own defence (even if I am the only witness for said defence) that any faces I make, annoying though they may be, are part of a genuine response to the music I’m playing. Admittedly, it was not always thus. When I was beginning to play concerts regularly, I thought that it was the ‘done thing’ to make agonised faces as one performed; so I started doing it. An elderly cello-teacher called Joan Dickson, whom I respected a lot (and who was incidentally one of the few cello-teachers who managed to remain on good terms with my irascible mentor, Jane Cowan) invited me to dinner, and gave me a stern lecture about the reports she’d heard about my grimaces. ‘More is less,’ was her message about stage antics; and how right she was. Suitably chastened, I returned home, and thenceforth made a conscious effort never to show more emotion than I was actually feeling as I played – to be honest, in fact.

Of course, the question of the exaggerated importance of appearance in today’s classical music world goes beyond making faces. Young artists appear on disc covers, or in publicity shots, scantily clad, looking as if they are in the throes of experiences that should really be confined to the bedroom… I have mixed feelings about this. These photos can be truly embarrassing; but on the other hand, if someone is good-looking, I suppose they might as well make the most of it while it lasts. It is the expressions and gestures of a musician while they are actually playing that concern me far more.

The faces and bodies of some of the greatest musicians actually seem to express quite little – except for concentration – as they play. (Casals, for instance, was likened in performance to an immovable Buddha.) Others express tension – which, while (I think) generally unfortunate, at least is not insincerity. But how often have we seen musicians who assume a pained expression that they deem suitable for the presentation of serious music – even though that music may run the gamut of emotions from tragedy to outrageous laughter? (One can scarcely imagine a comedian telling his or her funniest jokes with a face of deep pain; it would rather spoil the joke – as it does the jokes in, say, a work by Haydn or Beethoven.) Or they throw themselves around, again as if involved in private boudoir activities, whether or not the music suggests it at all. Some time ago, I saw a famous pianist playing some heart-breaking Mozart, and shortly afterwards saw him/her (!) playing a James Bond theme; the facial expressions and bodily movements were exactly the same in both cases.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. I was discussing it recently with the great Ferenc Rados, himself the scourge of affectation in any form. He reminded me of the letter in which Mozart complains about a young pianist, Anna Stein: ‘She sits right up in the treble, instead of in the middle of the instrument, so that she may be better able to move about and make grimaces. Her eyes roll and she simpers and smirks.’ He concludes that whoever ‘sees her and hears her without laughing must have a heart of stone’ (stein). So things haven’t changed much, perhaps. It is significant that during Gabriel Faure’s last years as head of the Paris Conservatoire, he used to attend all the auditions of young musicians, even though he was by then profoundly deaf; he could see/feel their sincerity and accomplishment (or lack thereof).

The simple message I’m trying to convey is: don’t feel you have to put on a show. The composers have provided quite enough emotional activity to engage an audience; we have to let their message pass through us (as it were) without undue interference. Of course we listen to the music as we play, and react to it while communicating it – that is natural, and quite right; but to put on false masks lessens the contact between the music and the listener, and switches the attention onto ourselves. Unfortunately, putting on a melodrama, or alternatively trying to look like a pained saint, can feel like a short-cut to success. Audiences are all too often fooled, and may even be impressed; but the musical truth will be diminished. Our aim should not be that the listeners think of us, but that they hear the music speaking for itself.