Wandering Troubadours

June 25th, 2011

It’s sort of our dirty little secret, but we here at Syzygy (when we’re not being ‘Syzygy’) don’t actually play contemporary music all the time. When we do we’re hardcore about it – passionate. MILITANTLY passionate, even. But we sometimes go way back before 1945. We sometimes play Bach, Handel and Mozart. The new music diehards seem to approve of this, or at least not turn their noses up too much – it seems Baroque music with its wonderful mix of florid ornamentation and strict discipline is not so far removed from the intellectual and virtuosic challenges of contemporary music. So that makes Bach and Handel ok. And Mozart? Well, everyone loves Mozart – he’s sort of the untouchable genius, isn’t he? So he’s safe too…

But my heinous little secret, as a pianist, is that I sometimes play Liszt. Sometimes even Rachmaninov. And recently, even a bit of C-…, C-… – oh, it’s too embarrassing to admit… Czerny! Not embarrassing because I think the music is inferior – far from it. But there is a particular brand of contemporary music nerd who will tell you that the music of the Romantics (of which Czerny is most definitely an early example of) is self-indulgent and sentimental – a triumph of flashy style over real substance.

But let’s reflect for a minute on the achievements of these composers. Czerny – pianist in the premiere of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, composer of hundreds of methodical and didactic exercises that ensure a fluid piano technique, pioneer of repertoire for piano duet and two pianos; Liszt – early explorer of atonality (check out ‘Mephisto Waltz No.4 if you don’t believe me), collector of traditional Hungarian folk-tunes and peasant songs, inventor of the concept of the ‘piano recital’; Rachmaninov – turned the concept of a ‘study’ into a substantial concert-piece, toured the world as a promoter of his own music and his own pianism, responsible for discovering a range and warmth of piano sound hitherto unexplored.

These composers – despite the extreme virtuosity of their works and the very public nature of their display – were, at their core, humble men who spent a great deal of time behind closed doors in isolation, like research chemists – studying their art, working out how to propogate and advance it for the greater good. When they did come out in public, they were like wandering troubadours – spreading a message of new hope and joy to the masses everywhere they went.

It is precisely because these troubadours were so good at doing what they did that we tend to poo-poo them now. What they did caught on – people liked it. Other COMPOSERS liked it. More music like theirs was written. Many concert-goers these days are saturated with it, and are numb to the message. How can a troubadour impart their wares successfully nowadays? How can they make an impact when people have heard it all before?

Well, what if the message just happens to come at exactly the right time? The lovely C and I have just returned from a 7-week tour of Africa. 4 of those weeks were spent in Zimbabwe – a country that gets a bad rap in the media these days because of its current political situation, but which is actually a nation of the friendliest, most intelligent, most emotionally in-tune people I have ever come across. Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, used to have a symphony orchestra. These days it does not, but it does have an audience that cares deeply about classical music – indeed, about ALL music. And they listen – and they listen in a way that puts my dulled Western ears to shame.

C and I were not sure what to expect as we began our recital of Czerny, Liszt and Ravel. What we were sure of though, as the recital proceeded, was that the audience was really listening. Not in a passive sense, but in a way that was fully engaging, and fully immersive. The Czerny, we were told afterwards by audience members, made them feel passion, desire and joy. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody – a piece considered almost cliched by Western audiences these days – reminded listeners of a bygone era. They heard in the music a longing to recapture the past, a grieving for lost joys and a bittersweet optimism for the future – which is, of course, precisely what Liszt intended and what the original Hungarian tunes spring from.

But it was for Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ that the biggest surprise lay in wait. C introduced the piece in a beautifully poetic way, asking the audience to imagine that they were all European aristocracy at the eve of the outbreak of World War 1. He explained how ‘we’re all going to a ball, and we dance because we’re sure the war will be quick and solve all our problems. But the war isn’t quick, the war is horrific. And so we end up dancing out of defiance, and then in denial, and then simply because we don’t know what else to do. And finally we dance as corpses with the dead bodies piling up around us’.

Afterward, the audience members had tears in their eyes. Many said that they had lived or were currently living through a situation akin to this, and that they had never heard a piece of music sum up this turmoil so aptly – it seems we had made a political statement without realising it. ‘You’re troubadours’, one woman told us. ‘You’ve imparted a very strong message’.

It was all inadvertent on our part – more good luck than good management. But it brought home to me that all music needs to resonate. We must never be numb to it – if a composer has bothered to put ink to paper then we must be respectful enough to react to it somehow, even if the reaction is one of hatred or rage. To be ambivalent is not acceptable.

As Syzygy prepares for its ‘Wandering Troubadours’ concert on July 21, we’re discovering that this music, drawn from different lands and different cultures is, likewise, reflective of very specific times and places. The New England nostalgia in Ives’ ‘Largo’ is so honest and raw you can almost smell the apple-pie cooking and hear the protestant faithful chanting their Sunday hymns; Tower’s ‘Petroushkates’ evokes wonderfully the razor-sharp precision of modern figure-skaters; and Turnage’s Baudelaire settings need to be heard to be believed – the music expertly mirroring the Frenchman’s tortured and complex musings on love and death.

We hope those of you that are able to experience this wonderful music with us in concert will thrill to the variety of music that is a result of the complexities of modern life, and will recognise composers that are passionate, vibrant, angry, afraid, joyous, nostalgic and defiant – and anything, ANYTHING but numb.


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