When Good Performances Happen

SOLI Chamber Ensemble rehearsing at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.

SOLI Chamber Ensemble rehearsing at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.

It has been great to read all of the comments on last week’s post about bad performances—I’m glad to see both composers and performers sharing their thoughts. In the interest of addressing both sides of this coin—or maybe that greener grass over there—I’m also interested in unpacking aspects of good performances. Yes, they do happen!

What about performances that turn out better than expected? A couple of commenters from last week shared stories of student groups giving performances of compositions that were surprisingly good because there was plenty of time to practice and fully absorb the music. What about performances that end up coming across differently than the composer expected, but that still work? Again, it does happen. One time, a performer I met only hours before a performance took a semi-improvisatory section of a piece in a direction that I had never considered. While for me it wasn’t necessarily the definitive version of the piece, it worked incredibly well! He made that work his own. When a musician spends enough time with, and thinks deeply enough about, a composition to drive it successfully off-road, you know you’ve found a good colleague. Similarly, on more than one occasion I have heard pieces greatly improved by performers who suggest small changes—a more dramatic shift of dynamics here, speeding that phrase up a bit there—which they think of during rehearsal. While I don’t always agree with suggestions for changes, I am always glad to listen to the ideas and try things out. Being flexible is part of being a good collaborator. Isn’t that what the composer/performer relationship is about?

While the “us vs. them” dichotomy between composers and performers is apparently alive and well, it seems highly unproductive. The last time I checked, we are all musicians. Maybe we are approaching the language of music from different standpoints, but we are all in the same field. I may not be a performer, but when I’m working with a musician or ensemble, I enter into that relationship with the expectation that we are all striving to reach the same goal. It doesn’t always work out, but even if it doesn’t, the world keeps turning. Both good performances and bad performances are a two-way street—it’s up to both composer and performer to work together to determine how things are going to shake out.

What performances of yours (either of works you’ve composed or pieces you have performed) have been really successful? Was there any part of the process that surprised you in a positive way? What does a successful performance really mean, anyway? How about those of you in the audience? What makes a performance successful in your eyes and ears?

4 thoughts on “When Good Performances Happen

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Again, thanks for an interesting topic.

    Though I’ve had plenty of disasters (well documented elsewhere, from the brass quintet that never played one note in sync through the orchestra where one member stopped playing and started laughing to the performance piece where the audience threw stones), most of my performances have been good. Part of the ‘good’ surprise is from lowered expectations, I suppose, especially after the ugly 1970s and 80s when composers and performers were at war and the composers walked out of the existing concert world to start their own groups.

    Things have changed. Recent performances have been excellent and, especially after those years of bleakness, very rewarding.

    What intrigued me most among your questions was the element of interpretive surprise. A pianist commissioned and performed a half-hour minimalist/serialist composition in a deeply rubato way that drained the serialism and made it one grand romantic gesture. After my initial shock (almost despair), I realized the interpretation was so different as to reveal much of the expressiveness hidden under the music’s pulsing surface.

    In another performance, a jagged faux tango was reinterpreted as a slow ‘drag’, bringing a sensuousness that I hadn’t considered in my desire to make the music angular. The difference between composer’s expectation and performers’ realization was once again revealing. If anything was lost in the reinterpretation, it wasn’t a worry to me — these days I can still point to the Midi realization as a kind of a definitive wireframe.

    Even today, few of my performances reach the interpretive level of what you describe as “a more dramatic shift of dynamics here, speeding that phrase up a bit there” — getting from one end to the other uses up most of the rehearsal time, I’m afraid, as I do not have (and never had) a body of student performers.

    A different angle on good performances is re-orchestration. I don’t know if other composers experience requests to re-work pieces for a different ensemble makeup. It seems to bring the composer and performers together — less so with an orchestral work (my “Fanfare:Heat” was revised for four different orchestras) but certainly with a tight-knit group. Both composer and performer seem to be more attentive when an already known composition is re-shaped for them.

    Reply
  2. Mark Winges

    surprisingly good because there was plenty of time to practice and fully absorb the music

    In my experience, plenty of time can get you far beyond surprisingly good. Where I’ve been fortunate:

    soloists (less of a scramble for rehearsal time, since it’s all individual practice)
    when an ensemble does multiple performances, or, even better, multiple performances across more than one season
    younger choirs (ages 12 – 18)

    Am I spoiled? Maybe. But I’m also humbled and inspired. Outstanding performances make me want to work even harder at making sure I give those performers something worthy of their talent.

      –Mark Winges

    Reply
  3. Pingback: stage: presence | Drew Whiting, saxophonist

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