A Voix Wonderfully Humaine

December 18, 2009

Here’s one more Grammy-season video. It introduces Derek Bermel‘s Voices, for which he is nominated for the Best Performance Solo Instrumentalist with Orchestra, along with the very deserving musician behind the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose. Those who are looking for original voices in current music resort in great numbers to the highly varied compositions of Derek Bermel, and this whole performance is being universally lauded:


It is a perennial accusation made against worshipers that they make their gods in their own image. I’m on record below as being a big fan of Le Poisson Rouge, but in today’s New York Times we are told

So you can imagine how gratified the composer [Arnold Schoenberg] would have been to hear this fresh, keenly dramatic account of “Pierrot Lunaire” presented at an informal club for an eager and receptive audience.

Whoa there.

Schoenberg famously put on his ideal concerts for years in Vienna. These were notoriously ernst affairs. Would the man who didn’t even allow applause take to the easy-going Poisson Rouge atmosphere? I think not. Not the man who said, “If it is art, it is not popular. And if it is popular, it is not art.”

Another thing that the chief critic of the Times may be forgetting is that, if Schoenberg had had his way, said critic might not even have been allowed at the Poisson Rouge performance, since Schoenberg customarily posted a sign at the door saying, Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (“Critics are forbidden entry”).


Le Poisson Rouge has been cited here before for its presentations and means of presentation. I’ve now been there for five very different occasions, and last night brought the best of those. In a program also flagged here recently, Alarm Will Sound gave a Derek Bermel evening.

While the music was consistently fine and the performances were of the highest virtuosity, the main point I want to make is one of attitude. I remember, years ago in the New Yorker, the estimable Andrew Porter’s expression of astonishment and pleasure when a chamber musician showed by a smile that he was pleased with a happy turn of phrase that he had just executed. We are not surprised when a member of an early-music group does this, and rock musicians of course have such facial demonstrations as an indispensable part of their stock-in-trade. But conventional “classical” instrumental musicians who aspire to be taken seriously (say, the player in most of your major string quartets or — goodness knows — the white-tie-sporting symphonic musician who dreams of a career in the Berlin Philharmonic) knows that the poker-face is part of the uniform. He’d no more laugh at a humorous phrase in Haydn than he’d wear flip-flops with his tails.

Thus, when the tacit violist in the front row right away reflected in the movement of his body that he was artistically involved in someone else’s playing, it not only increased my own involvement with the performance but it felt a little transgressive, too. But only for a moment. These folks are offering challenging “classical” music as though it’s something to be enjoyed. The fact that they aren’t ashamed to show their own enjoyment in their countenances and body-language gives us permission to imitate their involvement and share in their resulting satisfaction.

May their tribe increase, I say.

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