Your Lying Eyes

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11 December 2011

Virtuosi Ain't All That

Friday night I attended the NY Philharmonic concert where they played Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with superstar Joshua Bell as soloist (NY Times review here). During the cadenza (an extended solo performance usually towards the end of the first movement of a concerto, for any Philistines out there), I got out my small pair of binoculars to get a good close-up look at his playing. But then I noticed that also in my field of view were first violinists (to the left) and the violists (to the right), up-close and personal.

As Mr. Bell's playing mesmerized the audience, one might expect these musicians to be looking on - if not in awe - in rapt attention, savoring the performance of one of their brethren, a professional like them but one who had reached the rarefied heights of superstardom. Well one would be wrong.

What I saw were eyes darting about unfocused - or more clearly not focused on him. Typically the eyes were looking down and away from Mr. Bell, or up towards the ceiling. Lips were pursed as if blowing out air, bows were lightly tapped in palms, bodies shifting around in their chairs. As the solo neared its conclusion and the players began to prepare for their return, I even saw one of the violists smirking as if thinking "Finally!". What I saw, in short, was impatience - that sitting through this solo was a chore and an annoyance, hardly a treat.

I've often wondered how these musicians - who are, as members of the NY Philharmonic, clearly among the most gifted in their profession - view the soloists who perform with them: are they thinking "S/He's not that awesome - I could play that just as well, if I ever got the chance or had the time" or are the soloists indeed viewed as having truly special talent. Well I still don't know what they think exactly, but one thing they clearly do not feel is awe.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if their disdain was for the piece and not Bell

December 11, 2011 5:13 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

I don't think so - they played the piece quite spiritedly. I wouldn't characterize what I saw as disdain - just simple impatience, like they were completely indifferent to his solo performance, and they just wanted him to be done with it and get back to playing piece.

December 12, 2011 12:05 AM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

My father-in-law was an orchestral musician and a union leader. Playing in a big time orchestra is a union job and orchestra musicians tend to take a union attitude toward playing an instrument. But he was a big fan of the opera divas he played for.

December 15, 2011 11:21 PM  
Anonymous Deke DaSilva said...

My wife and I saw Bell a couple years ago at Alice Tully Hall, and we both agreed that he wasn't that hot.

Whether it was an off night for him, a not so hot piece (I can't remember what it was), or simply him, I'm not sure.......

Was he wearing that awful "Mao" shirt?

December 17, 2011 12:40 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

Yes - he as wearing that stupid Mao shirt - now that you mention it!

A "union" attitude is a very good way to describe what I witnessed - almost defiantly refusing to add any additional enthusiasm over what their professional obligations require. Teachers can be that way - inspiringly dedicated one minute, then inexplicably petty over the stupidest things.

December 17, 2011 8:34 AM  

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