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When Should it have Panache

 

and When Should it be Reverential?


—Harry George Pellegrin

 

I was recently revisiting an article penned in nineteen ninety five by Bernard Holland, a fabled music critic at the New York Times. Entitled When The Musician Presumes to Upstage the Music, it is easy to believe one can guess his feelings on the subject matter—from that title alone— before one has even begun to read.   Mr. Holland begins his article describing the letters he had often received after publishing a review of a concert, one about which he had obviously made somewhat less than complimentary comments, written by audience members who had asked the question “Did we attend the same concert…?”  He then describes two performances he attended where the recitalist or the soloist had, in his opinion, used too much range of dynamics or too much rubato, too many grand gestures and basically been too emotional with their programs.


Mr. Holland’s final assertion is that due to the lamentable fact that the standard repertoire has been so overplayed and that many if not most new compositions are not composed to be listener-friendly (his opinion, I merely reiterate), the musician is forced to do something to heighten the sense of drama, more deeply plunge into any intrinsic pathos, to just simply play these pieces bigger than their composers intended to please a jaded audience.  So, in the author’s opinion, the messenger becomes bigger than the message.  His rationale is presented very eloquently and I certainly respect his opinions and certainly do not wish the reader here to assume I am ridiculing Mr. Holland. 


We as guitarists face this issue as a more intensified crisis (if you will) as our repertoire is (a) quite a bit smaller than that of other recital instruments and therefore rather overplayed and (b) contains pieces culled from the repertoire of other instruments, a fact which can pit some audience members and reviewers against the guitarist simply because we have worn our shoes and trod, so to speak, on their favored instrument’s hallowed ground even before we have played a single note.  But there is more.


I come from the old school.  Trained during the late mid-seventies, my teachers included two well-known students of Andrés Segovia.  Segovia’s detractors, even in those days prior to his demise, considered him overly romantic when he played, for instance, any composition by Johann Sebastian Bach.  As a student of his students I have been endowed with built in schmaltz. So did many—if not most—of my compatriots.


Classical guitarists did not use amplification in those days.  One teacher told me that music was, in many ways, the same as acting.  I am sure everyone remembers the difference between screen and stage acting.  In stage acting, the actor must physically push all emotions and lines out as far as possible—indeed as far as the back row of seats.  Large motions and full-voiced/distinctly clear diction are of primary importance.  If the actor is so blessed to have a screen career as well, he or she knows that this larger-than-life approach does not work before the camera.  Huge hand gestures, booming lines—these look ridiculous on screen.  Similarly, delicate facial expression, hushed lines, and small moves would leave the theatre audience beyond the front row wondering if the play had even commenced!  I was taught that when on the recital stage, mezzo forte was the bottom of the dynamic range and that emotional input had to be larger than life.  In other words, play to the cheap seats!  Of course, when one goes into the recording studio, this could and should be toned down (no pun intended.)  One could be sensitive and even introspective when recording.  To this day, I still play very loudly in any other venue than the studio.  [I also don’t relish amplification, but at any cocktail party where the loudest inebriates always gather vociferously within six inches of the performer it is a necessary evil.]


I’ve strayed a bit from Mr. Holland and our interpretation of music and will return presently.  In the nineteen sixties and seventies, maybe earlier, period-correct performance practice entered the consciousness of most classical musicians.  This eventually filtered down to the guitar world.  Many of us bought lutes. We became painfully aware that certain sub-genres of, say, Baroque music, were divided and decided by a decade in time, a country and even a municipality that required trills and ornaments to be performed to specific formulae and the modern performer starting an ornament a half step in the wrong direction would utterly destroy, in some minds, an otherwise lovely performance!  In the nineteen eighties and nineties, if one did not perform a piece of music exactly as written and within certain interpretive parameters, there was a problem.  Soon our audiences lost interest.  The majority of attendees had not paid to hear a perfectly metronomic museum exhibit, as I began calling such reproductions, but had come to be entertained.  More cerebral audiences appreciated the pristine readings, and they were dutifully performed for classical guitar societies, in recitals at centers of musical higher education or when participating in master classes, but God help the performer who played thusly to a less illuminated crowd. 


I am certain you have seen Agustin Barrios’ various manuscripts of the same piece.  They are almost always different one from another.  I believe this is because his works were intended for performance and as he did just that, he would make changes to the score for one of two reasons.  First, I assume he would change his music as he worked the piece—improve and polish.  Maybe a great idea would pop into his brain and he just had to incorporate it.  The other reason?  Maybe the first version received a rather lackluster response from the audience and he decided to jazz it up, so to speak and as it were. Who can say whether Bach or Dowland or any other long-gone composer did or did not do likewise as they worked with one of their own compositions? Who knows?  Bach himself might be thrilled to hear his music performed after these many hundred years and might not be all that distressed that a bit of romantic interpretation (and even harmonization in Segovia’s case) lent his music relevance to a large twentieth and twenty-first century audience!  [Let me stress here that this is just my opinion, and that my opinion isn’t right just because I thought of it!   Too many folks feel that their opinion is right and everyone else is wrong for just that reason!  End of preach.] 


So what do we do as guitarists?  When do we get excited and when do we pay homage? Let me prioritize.  What is our first goal?  This should be to express our souls through music—to display our emotional responses to the world around us.  If a composer’s piece allows us to channel our joy, pain, frustrations, anger, etc. AND we do not totally demolish the emotions the composer intended, that is a good thing!  If we can’t find a composer’s work that allows us to do so, maybe we ourselves should begin to compose—our repertoire is perilously small; we need some new music!  Our second goal is to take this music and entertain an audience.  If we can convey our emotions in a meaningful way to a number of people, we have done a noble thing.  One caveat: this does not include pandering to the lowest common denominator.  When playing for a musical savvy crowd, the homage will be their best entertainment.  Still, if an educated critic such as the gentleman who inspired this article implies we are somewhat less than correct by accomplishing the first two goals while performing for the somewhat less-than-sophisticated group, then this, to me, is truly of little import.  As an aside, Mr. Holland did indeed acknowledge the fact that the performer was caught between the rock and a hard place trying to juggle relevancy with an audience with the perceived need to please a solitary critic.  I think Mr. Holland understood that, without totally destroying the composer’s work, the audience comes first.


Musical taste is, by its very nature, a matter of personal taste!  Sounds silly, but taste is solely based in opinion. No matter how educated that opinion may be, it can and will be challenged by anyone possessing a contrasting viewpoint.  As a final note, this is not intended to be anything more than an expression of an opinion and I do indeed have a great respect for Bernard Holland.  Similarly, I have great respect for those—both performer and audience member—for whom perfectly rendered period-correct performances are the ideal. I sincerely hope no one has gathered anything from this article that would indicate otherwise.  My opinion is not sacrosanct; the intent is to present food for thought. 

 

 

 

 

 

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UPDATED March 10, 2011

 

Mr. Pellegrin accepts students at his private studio in Scotia as well as Union College in Schenectady.   Email Mr. Pellegrin at recitalguitarist@gmail.com for complete information

Email : recitalguitarist@gmail.com
Phone : 518-346-5827

 

 

Album Review

 

 

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A CD collection of classical guitar favorites plus five selections from 'Suite for Guitar' by Harry George Pellegrin.

 "I picked the selections for this CD from the large number of  pieces that I have continued to enjoy over the many years that make up a lifetime, including both student pieces as well as recital-fare.  The intent of this album is not to try to dazzle, but to evoke memories."

SAMPLES:

Asturias/Leyenda         Isaac Albéniz 
Etude Opus 6 Number 8         Fernando Sor
Etude Opus 35 Number 13         Fernando Sor
Etude Opus 35 Number 22        Fernando Sor
Etude Opus 35 Number 17        Fernando Sor
Lágrima        Francisco Tárrega
Adelita        Francisco Tárrega
Mazurka in C        Francisco Tárrega
Mazurka in G        Francisco Tárrega
Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart         Fernando Sor
Etude Opus 60 Number 3        Matteo Carcassi
Etude Opus 60 Number 7        Matteo Carcassi
Etude Opus 60 Number 16        Matteo Carcassi
Vals Brevis One (Waltz for Agustin) For Georgio Testani         Harry George Pellegrin
Vals Brevis Two (Dark Horse Waltz)        Harry George Pellegrin
Vals Brevis Three (The Last Kiss) For Veronica M. Pellegrin        Harry George Pellegrin
Vals Brevis Four (Summer Afternoon, Bronx, 1962, For Coco)        Harry George Pellegrin
Snowfall 12.21.2008        Harry George Pellegrin

 

The Store  A neat collection of guitar-related items

Enjoy these exercises and come back next week for more! If you've enjoyed these exercises and sessions, please consider buying a copy of my book or my new album!

The Classic Guitar Method: Now in one volume, much of what the novice classical guitarist will need to know to lead him or her to the recital stage. From proper instrument care and maintenance to the necessary technical skills, musical mind-set, and the standard repertoire—all exposed and explored with enough detail and insight that the student will wish to keep this book handy years to come as a ready reference source.


With the aid of a good teacher, the student will rapidly progress through The Classic Guitar Method attaining technical proficiency and musical eloquence.

This method stems from the need to incorporate a number of schools into a single cohesive curriculum. Years of honing a logical approach to the guitar and the creation of music culminate in this volume. As a self-proclaimed Disciple of Valdés-Blain , much of that famed teacher's focus can be found in Mr. Pellegrin's method.

ISBN: 978-1-4116-9442-2

Published by PAB Entertainment Group, P.O. Box 2369 Scotia, New York 12302

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