Last month’s post considered the difference between a good composition and a bad one. This month, we continue that concept, but now we explore the differences between a so-called “good” performance and a so-called “bad” performance.

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Audiences clap at the end of the performance of a composition. Sometimes they clap more loudly if they really enjoyed it. Sometimes an audience member might yell something like “Bravo!!!” (or “Brava”, in the case of a woman). Some persons might whistle, some audiences might clap longer if they enjoyed the performance, bringing the performers repeatedly back on stage for one bow after another. (By the way, that is where the phrase “Break a leg” comes from! When you wish someone good luck before a performance, it is common to say “Break a leg”, meaning, in the English (England) tradition, to “bow” or “break a leg” many times.) In Europe, audiences clap in unison – they clap together with singular claps, sometimes getting faster in tempo.

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But have you been to a concert where the audience boo-ed???  I have not. I have seen audiences boo at a football game! Why not at a concert?

I believe that, in the case of football, the audience – by and large – is quite well educated in what they are watching and feel very empowered because of that knowledge to voice their opinions, whether to applaud or to boo. In the case of a classical concert, audiences are often not so well-versed and, not wishing to appear ill-mannered or (worse) ignorant, polite applause can be the most acceptable form of audience feedback.

Why have people stopped “boo-ing” and “hissing” when displeased with a composition or the performance of a composition? I suggested a moment ago that the answer might be understandable ignorance of the topic. But was this always so??? Actually, NO! As you may recall in the movie “Amadeus”, audiences reacted in real time with real emotions to what was happening on stage. Were audiences from previous eras more knowledgeable than our contemporary audiences? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

Since there was little else available for entertainment, it was quite common and accessible for people to attend various concerts of opera, theater, chamber music, dance and much more. They therefore did have, perhaps, a wider experience to use when assessing a given performance. A little know fact about this very dynamic, though, is that the music people listened to up through the Romantic era (and even into the post-Romantic era) was “in their language”; the composer and the audience shared a relatively close understanding and respect of each other.

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Enter late Romanticism and the dawn of 20c music. Wagner began by stretching the length of melodies and the distances between harmonies so far that people could get aurally lost, not able to orient where they are. Sparing you a detailed analysis of the many compositional ways in which composers abandoned the ear of their audience, suffice it to say that at the turn of the (20th) century, composers decided they needed to compose the music “they” hear, and left the audiences in the dust. Audiences, for their part, instead of trying to “keep up” with the “ear” of the composer, as it stretched all types of musical boundaries, decided it was too much work – the composers were going mad and their music made no sense. Notice similar movements in visual art (think cubism, avant-garde abstraction…). Picasso defended his paintings by saying “THIS… is what I see!” He did not care that others seemed not to see faces with two noses like he did.

20c composers likewise wrote music as THEY heard it, not much caring what others thought. And thus began a huge divide – a chasm – between many 20c composers and their audiences. The ear of the general audience remained in the mid- to late 1800’s. It has not progressed much since that time. In fact, for the music of  Arnold Schoenberg (early 20thc composer of 12-tone/serial music with no tonality), it is said that his audience has “yet to be born”!

But what about performances of music we CAN understand? What makes one good and one not so good? Firstly, there are many reasons a performance might be deemed very good: 1) a “warhorse” piece of music (one that has been around a long time and is a long-time favorite) – almost regardless how it is performed, 2) perhaps a performer’s degree and manner of displaying unusual talent on their instrument, 3) perhaps the audience can sense an “inspired” artist, one who visually is deeply engrossed in and passionate about how he or she expressed the music, 4) sometimes a pre-concert talk or great program notes assist the audience in better understanding a performance, making it a “good” performance, 5) a good performance can also result from synergy between performers – where the audience can sense the communication between players is so intense that it brings out more from them than if they were to be playing alone. The list goes on.

Can there be a good performance of a “bad” composition? I think so. It may not rival the performance of a master-work, but a talented and inspired performance of most any piece can be exhilarating.

It is interesting that in the Baroque era, audiences would good to a concert to compare the improvisatory abilities of one singer/instrumentalist over another. The performance practice then was to play or sing a piece the first time as written, and thereafter (upon repeat), with a performer’s own improvisation added. This is not unlike the current way of playing and listening to jazz. We often seek a performance of a particular person to hear how “that” person will improvise differently from another person.

A very interesting point about a “good performance” arose from the development of technology. Digital technology provided musicians with tools to correct minor errors in performance: perhaps the pitch was a little off or the tempo was not exactly steady or a rhythm was not properly executed. A computer program can be used to “fix” a recording of an artist, correcting it to the “nearest” ___________ (1/16th of a half step, or 1/32 of a rhythm, etc.). This provided an actual “perfect” performance. Designers thought they found heaven! At long last – perfect performances! But you may have guessed where this is headed. People did NOT like how this music sounded. It felt robotic and mechanistic. They needed to perceive the very slight imperfections of performance to sense that it is “human”. Guess what??? Designers developed… (you guessed it…) a “human performance” mode which would edit the recording of a performer and add a tiny degree of error to remove the robotic feel!!!

Another reason a performance may be deemed better than another is fidelity to the intentions of the composer or to the performance practices of the particular era/style. Conversely, it has been well-demonstrated that the exact opposite, when done creatively and convincingly, can also provide a great performance. I am thinking here of pianist Glenn Gould. He often departed from stylistic norms and yet was so creative and inspired, that his performances were unique masterpieces! And others have tried this, only to fall prey to “novelty for novelty’s sake”!

So, have I confused you??? Perhaps I have. And yet, I hope I was successful in opening up the wonderous complexity of great human performance. There is much to explore! Music is SO rich, and our human experience is SO rich, that when combined, magic CAN happen!!! I wish for you to experience many GREAT performances!!!

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.