Physicality and The Soloist’s Career

By · TITLE IMAGE Jeremy Brooks (CC BY-NC 2.0) · Date 02/16/2016

There’s a strange clip after a beautiful performance in “I Am The Violin,” the 2004 documentary about violin virtuoso Ida Haendel. On a simple string crossing in the first movement of the Brahms Concerto, Haendel’s bow bounces uncontrollably. She recovers within seconds, and the incident hardly registers in the scope of the performance. Yet the scenes that follow depict in Haendel an almost desperate need to prove that the tremor wasn’t her fault.

It was her violin, she says—a Stradivarius she tests immediately after the concert, trying to diagnose the cause of the tremor that has impeded her performances for more than a year. “It destroys me.” Later, while consulting with an expert who talks to her about wolf notes (rare on D, he says, the particular note that troubled her in the Brahms), she elaborates: “Some people will say, ‘Oh, it’s age. She is not capable of handling it anymore… believe me, it has nothing to do with me.”

Bow tremors can occur for a number of reasons, ranging from adrenaline to a simple mismanaging of the arm’s weight. To Haendel, however, the bow tremor is one thing only: a signifier of aging and the resultant loss of ability. She continually refers to the schadenfreude of spectators: “I know people are waiting for flaws. They come to a concert and they say, ‘Can she still do it?’ They are waiting for failure.” In fact, most contemporaneous reviews of Haendel’s performances and recordings are favorable. Even Norman Lebrecht, a prolific fault-finder whose website has been called the tabloid of music journalism, sings her praises: in articles from 1999 and 2000, he condemns the sexism and ageism he believes have stalled her career, referring to her as “one of the finest living violinists,” “playing as richly as ever,” and “much younger than her years.”

Photo carme r. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo carme r. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Indeed, as a female artist born in the 1920s, Haendel has received neither positive nor negative attention commensurate with her talent. Even if her anticipation of a gang of critics watching alertly for her misstep seems tinged by neuroticism, however, the pressure she puts on herself not to age—as if it would be a moral failure, to be affected by physical deterioration—is logical in a performance industry that prizes relevancy, even as (or perhaps especially because) it features music centuries old. Youth, and especially prodigies, receive huge amounts of press and performance opportunities that can drop off in subsequent decades. And when major institutions create new series designed to appeal to young potential subscribers (such as San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox, which advertises its cocktails and accompanies its performances with video art), aging stars like Haendel aren’t part of the plan.

Performers of Haendel’s generation must also contend with a new perfection that, in a climate of spotless recordings and live-streamed competitions, increasingly defines greatness. Many of these artists perform a standard repertoire of concertos and sonatas that are, embellishments notwithstanding, among the most fully notated works in classical music. Underlying the criteria of a good performance, then, is the achievement of matching the page. And documentation of this music’s realization has never been so exhaustive. There have never been so many videos of children playing showpieces perfectly, of master classes, of community orchestras and high school bands. The format may be low quality, or audio-only, but as long as we can summon the file of perfection—whatever rendition we personally think is the best—live performances will always be in implicit comparison with the best (and worst) of these recordings. Yet it’s the explicit comparison, in particular, that seems to perturb Haendel. Do spectators and critics perpetuate the pressure for musicians to stay young, relevant, and flawless?

Age can be immaterial to criticism: one San Francisco critic told me he tries to say “as a little as possible” in the case of “any really unacceptable performance.” Other times, criticism doesn’t apply. Conductors, in particular, tend to ripen into their 60s and 70s, and some instrumentalists’ original talent is so immense as to render virtually inaudible any deterioration of technique. Or, like the great violinist Fritz Kreisler, who never in his life played cleanly, an artist brings an ineffable something to a performance that makes it magical, even as notes may go awry.

When clumsiness in a performance seems undeniably linked to age, however, it can be awkward to think—and write—about. It’s one thing to criticize a debut by a young soloist who has the potential to grow, but another to criticize an elderly performer whose ability will likely only deteriorate. In the second case, any unfavorable remarks seem final, damning a veteran artist to eternal obsolescence. This feels especially cruel in an ageist society, and in Haendel’s case, there’s the additional problem of sexism: in the time that now-elderly female artists like her were growing up, they received far less recognition than their male peers, and continue to be slighted.

A retired arts reporter told me that, after hearing a disappointing recital by a respected soprano, she was glad she wouldn’t have to write about it: as it was, the experience “left a bad taste” in her mouth. In fact, it can be uncomfortable, whether in public writing or in the privacy of thought, to acknowledge that a great artist may no longer produce great art. Witnessing an idol experience a memory lapse, for example, can be painful not only because we guess that the mistake causes him embarrassment, but also because of the niggling worry that it can or will happen to us, too. If an aging star doesn’t sound good to our ears, how will we sound? And if perfection is the goal, what happens when perfection fades, or was never there in the first place?

Perfection is a relative and meandering target, and, if not for the existence of musical groups of all calibers and persuasions, most musicians would be out of work (and listeners out of entertainment). Particularly in the big-budget institutions that perform at extremely high levels, however, pressure can mount for aging or ailing stars to “step down” once they’re deemed no longer capable of achieving these standards. Media coverage of the last years of James Levine’s tenure as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, for example, centered on whether his health problems (which include Parkinson’s Disease) warranted his dismissal. Five years before Levine retired under pressure, WQXR published a piece titled “Is it Time For James Levine to Leave the Met?,” which invited readers to take a survey: Should he continue in the post, transition to an administrative role, or step down entirely? Several months later, the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini declared, “The time has come for Mr. Levine to make his next contribution to the company he loves and step aside as music director.”

Photo psyberartist (CC BY 2.0)
Photo psyberartist (CC BY 2.0)

Indeed, the Times’s Michael Cooper describes performing conditions that sound far from optimal: “The company has of late sometimes had to resort to extraordinary measures when Mr. Levine conducted—with the orchestra looking to the concertmaster for guidance, soloists looking at the prompter’s box, and the chorus being led by Donald Palumbo, the chorus master, from the wings.” It’s reasonable, then, for the Met to engage a younger and healthier conductor presumed better-equipped for the job, and Levine has stepped down into the same organization’s position of Music Director Emeritus—but what does “stepping down” look like for a soloist who earns via individual appearances? Public performances with orchestra, but only lesser-known regional groups? Public performances, but only in recitals? No public performances at all? Jascha Heifetz, whose recordings continue to define perfection for violinists, gave his last public performance at the age of 71, after sustaining injuries to his right shoulder. But Haendel, who once said she thought it “disgusting to see a 70-year-old lady playing the violin onstage,” had a change of heart: at 75, she resolved, “As long as I am in demand, I will go out.”

A review of a recital in an artist’s 57th year of concertizing, however, might not be newsworthy—not because he’s no longer great, but because he’s still great. Between 2000 and 2005, for example, The Guardian published eight reviews of Alfred Brendel performing some of the music he played most often: Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn. According to the writers, he was in fine form—not necessarily to an individual reviewer’s taste, perhaps, but certainly in accordance with his characteristic style that developed over a long and well-documented career. Had Brendel continued to concertize regularly, with pristine technique, reviewers would likely keep writing versions of this review—or, in the case that his technique deteriorated, they would be obligated to report it. Neither of these scenarios is particularly rewarding, and Brendel’s own writings on music probably tell more about him than successive 500-word accounts of his exacting yet expressive Mozart sonatas.

Indeed, interviews and profiles might be more valuable means of appreciating and learning from older artists. It’s especially beneficial when they are willing to share their solutions to age- or illness-related impediments to their music-making. For example, in her series “Practical Remedies for the Aging Female Voice” for the website Operagasm, soprano Patti Peterson analyzes specific technical problems that can contribute to what she calls “the infamous wobble” in older voices. It’s refreshing to see this dreaded flaw examined through the lens of basic, often fixable physical phenomena (a stooping posture compressing the rib cage), and consequently, at least partially stripped of its power.

Unfortunately, fictional accounts of musicians coming to grips with aging (including movies like “A Late Quartet” and “Quartet”) are probably more visible than practical information. In trade magazines, which may occasionally publish articles like Peterson’s, interviews tend to skirt the topic. It’s a defensible courtesy—who wants to press a respected figure to talk about a potentially sensitive subject?— but an unfortunate one, considering that all musicians lucky enough to age are the potential beneficiaries of these conversations. Only when topics like loss of muscle control are liberated from their taboo will the momentary bow tremble in a still-beautiful Brahms Concerto become less fraught.

Toward the end of “I Am The Violin,” the same expert visits Haendel at her home. She tests a few notes on the instrument, newly fitted with a small plate under the fingerboard. “Maybe it’s a little better,” she grants. Through 2013, Haendel regularly performed and taught master classes. Superlatives abound in the comments section of her most-viewed YouTube video, a showpiece performance from 2006 (when she was 78): “Goddess!” “amazing!!!!” ¶