First, let me be clear that I think this sounds like a great book. I learned about it in a Greg Sandow dialogue about the need for classical musicians to know more about how to create music. Fair enough - I certainly wish my training had included more emphasis on improv and composition. Still, it's a shame that the book's author, Jeffrey Agrell, feels the need to take the worst possible view of what it is that classical musicians tend to do. The press material breathlessly declares : "Agrell draws a startling analogy with sports that illustrates the absurdity of the traditional approach to classically-oriented music performance."
Here's is Agrell's startling analogy: "Imagine if basketball were played the way we perform music today. The greatest games would be recorded and aspiring players would be required to learn a pro’s every move by reading a description of each move from a written chart. Nothing unplanned or unknown would be allowed to happen. No invention in the moment. No individual expression of ideas. No risking a series of less-than-perfect moves for the sake of imaginative play." Yes, it's a startling analogy - startlingly bad. Since Agrell is apparently a professional horn player, I can only hope he understands that there are many perfectly good reasons to perform from an existing score. The basic fallacy is to think of a score as being substantially the same as a written-out improvisation, just as the acting-out of recorded basketball games would be recreating what had first been unscripted. If that's all composers had to offer us, we'd only want to study and perform scores in order to get ideas for improvising, but obviously a score can be so much more.
It's true that many of the great "classical" works were written by composers for whom improvisational skills were part of basic training; we can further assume that a Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, etc. would often embellish on the spot when performing from scores, but they clearly also valued the advantages of putting musical ideas together in a permanent form. The primary advantages would be the greater structural complexity that planning allows and the sophisticated coordination of ensembles large and small. Not everyone finds these the most important of values, but it's safe to say that they undergird much of the classical music aesthetic. So, maybe the tradition has gone a little overboard in worshipping at the altar of the score - but that doesn't mean the experience of performing from a score involves "no invention in the moment" or "no individual expression of ideas" or "no imaginative play." This I know both from my experience as a performer and encountering all sorts of performers and teachers, both world-class and less than world-class.
This sort of strawman-ing of the classical musical experience is what tends to drive me most crazy about Sandow - I agree with him that there are some dead spots in the classical music culture, but he's prone to exaggerating them and and underestimating what makes it so worthwhile to return again and again to prefabricated musical creations. I've already mentioned this Sandow statement: "The classical music business, as we know it today, is among much else a glorious basking pool. We can love that, if we want, but we shouldn't confuse this with art." I agree with his oft-made point that we need to be much better at communicating about our art, but that needn't involve belitting the kind of aesthetic experience that many of us treasure.
So, I could go on and on reverse strawman-ing Sandow and Agrell and suggesting they understand nothing about art - but that doesn't really further the conversation. I'll be honest and admit that Agrell is really saying it's our method of training that is too much like a basketball reenactment, not the practice of performing from scores. I assume he believes that better improvisers will do a better job reenacting when that's the task at hand. Agreed. I can just say that as someone who watched (and thoroughly enjoyed) every second of the NBA finals, it's just not even close to being the same thing as listening to Bach or Stravinsky. (I'm not saying one thing is better or worse - just that they're completely different.) Bach and Stravinsky have survived because, for many, their works become richer upon multiple rehearings. Notwithstanding the success of ESPN Classic and the like, I can safely say that the best games are never as good on tape as they were live, and there's only a minor novelty interest in reenacting them.
Curiously, while I was working on this post, I discovered via the Omniscient Mussel that The Guardian recently sent a golf correspondent to cover an evening with Yefim Bronfman and the San Francisco Symphony. I can more easily excuse the Guardian's Lawrence Donegan for the unfairness of the following:
My attention remained fixed, tangentially at least, on what was going on inside the concert hall - which is to say I spent most of the night pondering why it is I would much rather have spent it watching sport - any sport. The answer, I think, is this: uncertainty. The essence of sport, and therefore of sports writing, is the unscripted nature of its narrative and the uncertainty of its outcome. Yefim Bronfman is a genius, no doubt, but he didn't write his own script - Brahms did - and the ending hasn't changed in the last 150 years, and won't for another 150. Tiger Woods, on the other hand, writes a new concerto every day, each one better than the last.Never mind that the progression of the Brahms concerto could hardly have been certain to Mr. Donegan, since he doesn't know the piece. His sense that it was all too certain confirms something that Sandow often talks about - the way that a typical classical concert can feel like a curatorial handling of an aged artifact, especially to the unitiated. We need to work on that, partly by helping people understand that listening to Brahms is not supposed to be the same thing as watching the Celtics and Lakers. Perhaps Donegan can be forgiven for not getting that, but Agrell should know better.
P.S. By the way, being a Boston sports fan these days is starting to lack that feeling of uncertainty. Since 2002 we've had three Super Bowl champs, two World Series winners, and now the Celtics returning to glory. If it hadn't been for that Greek tragedy that played out on Feb. 3 (which I'm still not prepared to discuss), we might well be wondering if losing is actually an option.