In today’s The New York Times Bernard Holland reviews a concert by 90-year-old pianist Earl Wild (A Veteran Pianist Sticks With the Things He Knows Best). Holland informs us that Wild has a reputation for “big pieces played in the grand manner” and has exhibited “longstanding delight in astonishing audiences with feats of virtuosity and stamina,” so what interested me most was Holland’s last paragraph:
I think I hear in Mr. Wild’s later years a more sober and thoughtful, and thus a more interesting, musician than the one I remember from his slam-bang, shoot-’em-up prime. Both the simple Marcello piece and Beethoven’s deeply rhetorical Largo movement were touchingly done. Maybe this kind of musicianship was always there but, with all the razzle-dazzle in the way, never got to our ears. Maybe it never got to Mr. Wild’s ears either. I suspect that being a little less of a pianist these days has made him a better musician.
I think that youth versus the wisdom of age has something to do with it, but I fear that the shift in our societal values plays an even bigger role. For whatever the reason (perhaps lack of arts education?), audiences react favorably to the flash and splash of virtuosic technique that they evaluate primarily on the basis of speed and volume. For some young artists the over-the-top displays are motivated by ego (“Look how great I am”), while others are propelled by the belief that if they can’t “wow the audience” then they have failed. In both cases, audience reactions fuel the fire.
I believe that the greatest performers are those who understand that it is about the music, not the musician. Somehow, with that understanding and attendant devotion to the music itself, they actually become better artists. The catch, of course, is that as human beings we crave recognition and applause — knowing within yourself that you did the right thing or created something wonderful is just not the same as hearing the accolades. Somewhere there must be a happy balance, and searching for that ‘somewhere,’ trying to find that balance, is part of the artist’s journey.
[Longtime readers of DevraDoWrite know that “technique in lieu of true artistry” is one of my recurring laments. During my first week as a blogess I posted It Takes More Than Chops.]