Friday, March 2, 2007

Great vs Favorite

Assembling quick little lists of my favorite movies and musical works gave me a good chance to think about the difference between appreciating something as objectively great and as a subjective favorite. Obviously, there are some works on my list of musical favorites that are universally considered great such as Beethoven's 5th symphony and Brahms Requiem. On the other hand, I haven't included works such as Beethoven's 9th, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, or Mozart's Requiem even though I would easily acknowledge them to be great - greater than, say, Fritz Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro which easily found its way into my strange little mix.

My goal was to choose works that I find to be exceptionally well-written AND that have made a profound impact on me as a listener/performer. Maybe it's silly to say that that hasn't happened with the works mentioned above because I know them all well enough to argue easily for their greatness. I find the opening chorus of the Matthew Passion to be overwhelmingly beautiful and I love the first three movements of the 9th symphony. (I get a little bored as the last movement unfolds, which probably makes me an idiot.) There are many movements of the Mozart Requiem that I have taught several times and that I find exquisitely perfect and moving. Still, I can't honestly say that I find the sum to be quite as great as its best parts - yet. I probably need to know it better. I'm sure the same is true for the Bach. Nothing would make me prouder than I to say that I have a full grasp of that entire work, but I'll admit that I've never heard it performed live and, on recording, I honestly get kind of bored during some of the arias. I hope to get there some day with that, but I'm not sure I could honestly call it desert island material yet.

I'm much closer to letting Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy into the fold which is surely sacrilege. That points to an important aspect of this whole enterprise, however - I've had the opportunity of playing the Carmen Fantasy a couple of times with supremely gifted violinists and those performances have left a more indelible mark on me than watching the entire opera. There's no question that this list reflects to a large degree my life as a performer. There's clearly a bias towards piano concerti, violin concerti, and chamber music with piano. I haven't actually played all of those piano concerti at the piano, but I've imagined playing them all and one reason I enjoy listening to them is that I find it easy to engage myself as a listener by putting myself at a virtual keyboard. I certainly haven't played any of the violin concerti on a violin (except for essaying the opening theme of the Mendelssohn a few times with my patented one-finger technique), but I've accompanied them all many times. Pretending to be an orchestra in this way is one of my absolute favorite things, much better than whiskers on kittens.

Anyway, it says something about the classical repertoire that an intimate familiarity and personal identification with these works makes them so much more meaningful. A topic for another day is how this love affair with known quantities presents such problems for contemporary composers. Filmgoers love to see something new and suspenseful, but most music lovers are happiest hearing something "classic" for the 123rd time because the great classics reward that intimate knowledge. How's a present day composer to compete with that? Films don't tend to require as much inside insight from their audiences. I don't really need to know much about the technical aspects of filmmaking to find the films on my list to be meaningful, although I know there are films out there that people love for their brilliant cinematography, editing, etc. Of course, one can love musical works without knowing them from the performer's point-of-view, but for my list of favorites I found myself returning again and again to works I know well enough to listen to from the inside.

Strangely, I also recognize my own bias in favor of the violin repertoire over the cello rep, even though I actually play the cello. I should probably go ahead and let the Dvorak and Elgar concerti on my list; I haven't played them on the cello but I've accompanied them from the piano many times and they both have so many wonderful moments. Somehow, they don't quite make the cut for me for reasons I can't even explain. However, I'm taking a break right now to go put Schelomo on the list; that was just an oversight.

Now that I'm back, I'll just close by clarifying that my interest here is to be totally subjective and identify what has seemed most essential to me. With the film selections, I could easily add a larger second group of movies that I love to watch including the always rewatchable 90s troika of A Few Good Men, The Firm, and The Fugitive, but I was looking for something more exclusive with that list. The movies I've listed have simply struck me as both extremely well executed and uniquely compelling. It's probably not surprising that all of them are from my the era of my adult years and I'm sure that completely disqualifies me as a serious student of film. I've seen the first two Godfather's and understand why they're held in such high regard, but I don't buy into them the way I do any of the titles on my list. Ultimately, with any artform, the buy-in is the point. I'll pay whatever Sarasate wants when he's selling me Carmen tunes, but I'm still trying figure out if I need the Ode to Joy on my island. Maybe I'd like it better if I were deaf.

No comments: