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What about all those wrong notes?

David Amos

By David Amos

SAN DIEGO-This is a somewhat negative article, not about the wrong notes we hear, but about the lack of them, and the notes and music we do not hear.

Nowadays, we hear virtual perfection from soloists and orchestras. This is what we expect. Sometimes it is as if we are hearing a computer, flawless, no spontaneity, no risks, and just safe notes. So many artists on the concert stage will not take any chances, but it is at the sacrifice of creativity. This is why I am reluctant to run to a local concert by a renowned artist; all the notes will be there, but I’ll be bored to death.

But it was different in the past. Here are a few salient examples:

Among the most exciting recordings of a live performance is the one of pianist Sviatoslav Richter, playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in Sofia, Bulgaria, sometimes in the 1950’s. The dated Columbia long play record and the subsequent release on CD are full of flaws. The microphone placement is questionable, and the audience has a collective case of terminal coughing. Oh, yes, and Richter misses more notes than you could imagine. Someone could write a concerto just with the notes dropped under the piano.

Yet, this is an electrifying performance. The energy level coming out of the piano is indescribable, as is the virtuosity of the soloist. The communication is so strong, the message of the music so vivid, that after a while, you forget about the pianistic clams, and you feel transported into a different dimension.

If you want to hear sloppy ensemble playing, listen to the many recordings of Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic in releases from the 1930’s and 40’s. But that becomes unimportant. What you keep and remember from these historical discs is music that sparkles, is alive, and energetic. They have the stamp of epic performances. Furtwangler’s interpretations were legendary, and once you get past the primitive recording sound and the less-than-perfect playing, the real quality becomes apparent.

Here is another classic example. From the Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “Arthur Schnabel (1882-1951) was a classical pianist who composed and taught. He was renowned for his seriousness as a musician, avoiding anything resembling pure technical bravura. He was said to have tended to disregard his own technical limitations in pursuit of his own musical ideals. However, Schnabel is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the Twentieth Century, whose vitality, profundity, and spiritual penetration in his playing of works by Beethoven and Schubert in particular, have seldom, if ever been surpassed”. His recordings on the Angel label of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas are a standard and a model for others to emulate.

Today, we judge a performance and call it “faulty” if it has a few wrong notes. But quite the opposite, if we do that, we are listening to the wrong things and missing the whole point of what music is all about.

And, what’s even funnier, musicians can play an anthology of wrong notes, but if they are consonant and don’t clash harmonically, 99% of the listeners would not know the difference!

There are many wonderful and talented soloists in the world today. But in the past, you could recognize the style of an emerging soloist by the teacher with whom he or she studied. The individual personality was all there, but the stamp of the master teacher or the school was clearly discernible. It had pedigree. Today, no matter where of with whom a young artist studied, they all tend to sound alike, with non-geographical, predictable similarity to other musicians of their generation.

It is no secret that musical competitions of the last 30 years or so are usually won by the contestants who play the loudest and fastest. None of the subtleties and spontaneous imagination which makes great music is to be found. And judges, artists’ managers booking agents and audiences, on the whole, don’t get it.

Today, after finishing this article, I will be one of those judges at a music competition. I will do my best not to succumb to the temptations of flashiness vs. serious artistry.

The best music being made today on a worldwide, world-class level is by musicians who are willing to take chances. They play and create something vibrant and fresh during the performance, not just “pay it safe”.

No wonder that recitals and concerts, on the whole, are stale experiences which do not communicate and leave so many listeners dissatisfied, sometimes not even knowing why. And maybe this is a contributing factor to the ever-growing problem of creating and cultivating new, young audiences.

Many of us who are veteran concert-goers have become somewhat immune to the cookie-cutter interpretations on stage today. We hear not what is taking place, but what we want to hear. Younger, less seasoned listeners may actually be more perceptive than many of us, and are justifiably unexcited by the concert experience.

I have discussed this subject through the years with many people, in and out of music, and in recent times, with someone who has had a direct connection with some of the greatest names in music in the last 100 years, including legendary artists.

By learning from the past, music can strengthen our present and future.

Amos is condutor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has been guest conductor of professional orchestras around the world.

  1. Michael Crane
    August 11, 2010 at 10:01 am


    Thank you for your very insightful and relevant article. I am a pianist in the NY area though I’m originally from southern California. I have spent my life trying to improve my technique and have finally come to realize that being obsessive about accuracy and speed has in fact diminished my enjoyment of playing music. All of my favorite pianists are from the past, and it’s the tone quality, the musical conception, the phrasing, that sets them apart from today’s automatic, acrobatic players. This has become particularly crucial for me as I prepare for a performance of Prokofiev’s left hand piano concerto. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult technical hurdles I’ve ever had to surmount as a pianist. After reading your article, I feel you have made my task by inviting me to focus on what is most important about the experience of playing.

    Michael Crane

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