Schiff runs aground
June 3, 2009 by Norman Lebrecht
A number of people walked out of Andras Schiff’s lecture-recital on Haydn at the Wigmore Hall on Friday night, so I’m told.
The erudite Hungarian pianist is in the chrysallis stage of morphing from concert artist to public intellectual, a transition last successfully achieved by Alfred Brendel.
Schiff’s 2006 Beethoven lecture recital was received with rapture by the editor of the Guardian newspaper, himself an avid pianist, and his residence at the Wigmore is one of the hall’s outstanding trademarks.
So why did people walk out when Schiff was at full steam? Apparently, it had something to do with the language he used. One young person was heard asking an usher what was meant by ‘tonic and dominant tonal relationships’. Others were visibly puzzled by such helpful advisories as ‘moving to the minor chord with the altered 5th’.
Musicians in the hall knew exactly what he meant. These are terms they assimilated in first-year college and use among themselves as shorthand, in the way heart surgeons refer to capillaries by letters and numbers. In an academic lecture, these terms would have been perfectly in place. But in a public presentation they sundered those in the know from those without and alienated the curious beyond risk of return. What was intended by the hall as an educational venture achieved the very opposite function.
Musical terminology is often clumsy and seldom irreplaceable. Most things that are done in music can be expressed in words that an unprepared audience will understand. There are plenty of artists who welcome listeners pithily into their world and plenty of critics and writers who advance the process of communication by avoiding technical jargon.
I don’t want to single out Andras Schiff as an antedeluvian elitist. He is pursuing an honourable path of enlightenment in the language he knows best. But Schiff should remember that if he invites the public through the door he should speak to them in expressions and metaphors they can readily understand. Using shorthand may be handy among friends, but it always makes strangers feel unwanted.
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