Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Tempi Today
(And Dynamics)

As we watched the moon landing 49 years ago, my father told me the story when, in 1909, he ran up to the road in Lynchburg Tennessee, to see what the noise was; “it was Three of them horseless carriages goin’ by up on the ol’ road, we ain’t never seen ‘em before”. I noticed just last week that we had just launched another Mars exploration, which will land on Mars in six months and will be enabled to take seismological readings on any Marsquakes that might be taking place. 

In the mid 1950s I remember the Rochester Philharmonic had a famous Austrian conductor in his 80s at the podium of our orchestra, we performed Meistersinger Overture and Bruckner 8thSymphony (A young tubist’s dream concert). Of course, I was thrilled to be playing that repertoire for the first time, however, the subsequent conversation among the orchestra and the musical community was that the performance that night was played at unbearably slow tempos; I imagine those were the tempos were an historical reference to what traditional tempos were during the early years of the 1900s. 

Yesterday, I heard online a performance of the 1stmovement of Beethoven’s 5thSymphony conducted by a young woman whose name and origin was not available. It was faster and a higher energy than I had known before in the hundreds of Beethoven 5ths that I have heard in my lifetime, it absolutely held my attention through the whole movement. 

Like old cars are to spaceships, our environment is accelerating at an unbelievable velocity. This begs the question: Are we mandated to perform at a tempo, which would have been considered appropriate at the time a composition was written or would we be more successful in the communication of music to perform at a tempo more compatible to our time? Symphony orchestras are not democracies, conductors make those decisions, the musicians need to obey but we are not obligated to agree.

The old maestro, Joseph Krips, who conducted Wagner and Bruckner with the Rochester Philharmonic in the late 1950s constantly asked for a “Singing fortissimo” when the dynamics got too loud for his tastes, in other words he meant “Not so loud please”. It was hard, even for a boy in my late teens, to restrain my instincts to open up and play.

The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam has been a great orchestra for more than 100 years but the dynamics of symphony orchestras, the dynamics of music in general, in fact, the dynamics of the world have been in a constant crescendo in passed century. Once in the 1970s the Chicago Symphony played it’s first concert in the famous Concertgebouw (concert building) of Amsterdam. The famous Chicago Symphony and particularly the Chicago Symphony brass, which many thought to be the most glorious and best brass section in the world, horrified the Amsterdam concert going public, the Amsterdam music critics of the press and the members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was said, “One just cannot play that loud I our Concertgebouw. 

It’s the same question again: Are we honor bound to adhere to tempi and dynamics of times passed or do we play within the references of our time?  Are we a finely curated sonic museum or a powerful source of artistic communication?   

Roger Bobo, Oaxaca, Mexico, May 9, 2018