Classical Music Stars Bring High Art Without the Jargon

This article was originally published on in October 2018.

World class performers get nervous too. Here, they show the audience just how and why.

NEW YORK—When the artists gets on stage, the first thing they’re asked is: “You could perform anywhere in the world. Why are you here? What are you getting out of this?”

That’s because the musicians invited by soprano Allison Charney to her PREformances series are world-class artists at the top of their games, like NY Philharmonic cellist Carter Brey this season, or violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins who is kicking off the series on Oct. 22 at Merkin Hall. They present the piece they’re working on to an audience in a not-quite dress rehearsal session.

And the performances aren’t just a run-through of some big piece the musicians are about to play at Carnegie Hall or take on tour.

These artists come on stage and reveal to the audience what exactly they’re working through. Some might be struggling with a difficult passage; for others, it may be a recurring memory lapse.

One pianist came on stage ready to talk about the technicalities of the piece she was working on, only to reveal that these days she could not get her children out of her head. What was she making for lunch? Did she pack their things for the school trip? She just wanted to be able to let go of all that chatter and focus on the music.

“The audience could not believe [that],” Charney said.

And then the artists perform their pieces. If they do grapple with a passage, or there is a memory slip, as there has been at PREformances from time to time, they let it happen, cluing the audience in to the difficulties without covering it up.

Once, a cellist was really challenged by a passage, even making noises of frustration as she tried it over and over.

“And then something just clicked, and she went on,” Charney said. “She let the audience see that, instead of covering it up.”

The cellist indeed confessed to be struggling with her memory of the piece, but not in that spot, Charney added with a laugh.

As professional performers, Charney said, they’re trained not to share that with the audience. Heaven forbid there be a slip-up on stage, but if it happens, the show must go on.

So it was a completely different way of thinking that she had to coax out of the artists in PREformances to let the audience in, share with them if things aren’t going the way they envisioned.

“Reveal the chinks in the armor—that’s what people will feel special about knowing,” she said.

And as these artists gave it a try, they realized it was no hardship.

“I found that the artists really are unaccustomed to sharing such a deeply personal thought with the audience, and they actually really enjoy doing it,” Charney said. “And the audience is hungry, devours this information, and it makes them appreciate the performance that much more because they’ve gotten to know the performer just a little bit more, and they see that they’re human.”

Her philosophy is that this is a complete win-win situation. The audience gets to hear some of the best musicians in the world and gain what she calls “un-Google-able insights” about the performers and their relationship to this music, and the artists get the benefit of a live audience before the big day.

“It’s this juxtaposition of this high, high, high art performed by the greatest musicians at the top of their craft brought into your lap and shared personally, explained personally, and revealed personally.”

The Audience Is Key

Pianist Joel Fan has performed at PREformances multiple times; his repertoire includes a great many works by living composers as well as maybe lesser-heard gems from well-known composers of the classical canon.

“I guess you could say it’s eclectic,” Fan said of his performances. As such, the extra performances hosted by Charney are a wonderful way for him to try out new material.

“Learning a new piece is like falling in love,” Fan said. With each performance, he gets to know the piece more intimately and uncover things he might not have noticed before—and he very much treats these as performances.

“As a performing artist, you’re really trained that every time there is an audience, it is a different audience, a different experience,” he said. The goal is to bring this specific group of people a great experience, and every group is different.

As all performers know, you can’t play for yourself. Without an audience, it is just rehearsal, another practice session.

“There’s nothing remotely the same,” Charney said. “Without an audience, that pressure just isn’t there.”

“It’s that kick, it’s that spark, it’s that adrenaline rush, and it’s the necessary component,” Charney said. “With the audience, it’s a real deal.”

Most musicians have some pieces they’ve performed time and time again. And in each show, they might discover some new thing, like having to take an extra breath because of the exhilaration of being on stage, Charney said. The changes aren’t as definitive in practice; they’re not necessarily real until a performance.

Charney has presented over 100 artists at PREformances, and nearly half of them have come more than once, precisely because the experience was of value to them.

“The performer will say, I’m trying to overcome this … the audience will ask [afterward], did you do it?” Charney said with a laugh. “Because the audience has no idea!”

That’s another purpose of PREformances: To strip away the barriers preventing people from being comfortable with classical music.

Charney often sees people sitting so rigidly at performances, and wishes that weren’t so. She’s heard things such as that people think the music is too above them, or that they don’t understand where it starts and stops and when to clap.

“There’s a sense that you as an audience member need to be really well-educated in order to appreciate the music, which I think is obviously untrue!” she said. “You don’t need to have any musical education to appreciate music; you just need to listen and to be able to feel. That’s really all you need.”

Classical music is really a “tiny little world,” and Charney’s goal is to make it accessible.

“When I sang ‘Butterfly’ on tour once, I sang it near my mother’s hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts,” Charney said. It’s a real working-class town, she explained, but a bunch of people her mother knew from high school came out to see this opera.

“One of them came up to her [mother] afterward, tears streaming down his face. He’s this big, factory worker. He said, I came because it was your daughter; never been to an opera. I always thought it was above me. I bawled like a baby—this was unbelievable,” Charney said. “So, he needed the connection of somebody’s kid was in the show, so he decided to give it a try. And I guess I’d like people to know that they don’t need to know anything special. You don’t even need to think that you like it.”

It’s amazing what a difference it makes in some people once they realize they have permission to dislike a piece, like a lightbulb going off over their heads.

A lot of the pieces Charney presents are short; she’ll tell the audience to look at their watches and expect a piece to be 10 or 12 minutes, and if they don’t like this one, maybe they’ll like the next one. A single 90-minute period of music can range from Giuseppe Verdi to Maurice Ravel to Amy Beach and then feature a living composer.

The performances or talks are not about a certain piece, but about a specific artist’s relationship to a particular piece.

“It’s not a lesson about Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”; it’s about Allison’s feelings toward “The Marriage of Figaro,” and specifically, Allison’s discomfort with this particular measure, or Allison’s love of the low C in the second act of the finale—and oh, my God, that just makes the whole world feel right. If I were thinking about “Marriage of Figaro,” that’s what I would be thinking about over and over again,” Charney said.

The artists might get excited like this, and end up speaking in technical terms to a group of people who don’t know the difference between an adagio and allegro, so Charney always stops them to explain or even demonstrate on the piano.

A violinist once mentioned something about the second inversion chord in a Strauss piece. Charney stopped her right away and sat down at the piano. She played a chord of three notes together, saying that it was in the root position. And then she played the first inversion, and the second, explaining that the notes don’t change but the order of the notes do change, and the auditory effect is visceral.

In the root position, you feel grounded.

“And in that second position, it feels filled with hope of what’s to come, and that song is about what’s to come,” she said. “That’s why at the end, it [the chord] is so important.”

Will the audience remember all the technical terms used? Probably not. But they understood that though it was the same chord, there was a difference they could hear and feel.

“People will come up to me afterward and say, ‘That just opened my mind,’” Charney said.

While it is not intended to be an educational program, the series becomes “sneakily educational” in this way.

It’s a series driven by generosity: that of the audience’s open-minded curiosity, the artists’ willingness to reveal a very personal part of themselves, and even the concept of furthering charity. Charney has always been inspired to give back to the world, and she knows she can through music that lifts spirits. But organizations like the Basser Center, started by friends to tackle breast cancer research, saves lives, and their work inspires Charney to tie charity to art.

“What I know how to do is make music, and to bring together people in this way,” Charney said.

The 2018–2019 season begins on Oct. 22, with five performances through May at Merkin Hall at the Kaufman Music Center.

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