Rachmaninoff Third, Part Seven

May 29, 2011

“It looked like you were really enjoying yourself up there. Were you?”

There is an unusual line down which interpreting musicians walk. On one side is feeling, on the other side is control. A performer has to hold a teetering balance between these two.

The composer’s score is like a playwright’s script, and the interpreting musician is like an actor. In “An Actor Prepares”, author Stanislawski tells his students to perform simple actions onstage rather than to emote. Instead, it is the actor’s job to create the conditions for the audience to feel emotion.

An elderly friend of mine in Frederick told me that he heard Rachmaninoff play in concert. He remarked that he had never seen anyone with such an aristocratic bearing as Rachmaninoff. “But he made such Romantic music!” he said. Maybe Rachmaninoff was using the Stanislawski method.

(You can read a lecture I gave at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting tracing connections between acting and performing music at http://jeffreychappell.com/march_7_lecture.php )

Being onstage, in itself, engenders heightened emotions and energy. If the music is exciting in the practice room, it will be twice as exciting in front of an audience. But a performer can forget this, be overwhelmed by feelings, lose control of the performance, and cheat the audience out of the full message of the piece. The trick onstage is to reduce one’s own excess emotional energy. (Unless, of course, you are improvising jazz or playing rock music. But that is different from portraying character in classical music.)

Cutting totally loose is perfectly fine when you are alone practicing the music; in fact, you should do that. You want to be carried away by inspiration, which then causes you to perform certain actions. Then you repeat those actions to portray the inspiration.

And yes, inspiration can visit you onstage at times, and things can take on a new meaning spontaneously. It is not something to resist. It is actually something to celebrate. Being prepared with a complete interpretation in advance is what allows that to happen.

I made every effort to stay on the side of being in control of simple actions during this performance, even at the explosive climax of the first movement cadenza. Apparently that worked. People commented afterwards on the sincerity of my playing and said that it was full of emotion. Which it was. It was full of emotion and of control as I walked the line between them.

–Jeffrey Chappell