August isn't usually a prime time for concerts in Alaska, but last week and the week before brought me the opportunity to catch a couple that deserve note.
The Anchorage Fine Arts Society, now in its fourth year, presented a little chamber music festival with primary performers being students at the University of Michigan who apparently came here as summer guests of Anchorage violinist Christine Harada Li, herself now a student there.
The highlight of the mini-fest was an ambitious program of two big G minor works at the Anchorage Museum on Aug. 16 -- a recap of music presented in Girdwood the previous day.
It began with the Opus 57 Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich with Siyuan Li of Guangzhou, China at the piano, the Anchorage Li and Alan Tilley on violins and Nathaniel Pierce on cello. Born Alaskan Alec Lindsay, now studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, sat in on the viola part as a guest artist. The players gave a lovely reading of the somber, dense piece. The abundant and deeply melancholy slow movements were nonetheless played with lyricism.
The second half of the program consisted of Johannes Brahms' First Piano Quartet with Cole Anderson at the keyboard and Tilley taking the violin position and Harada Li going to viola. The aggressively energetic work benefitted from the powerfully emphasized martial bass lines from Pierce. They did start sounding a little tired before the high-kicking rondo ended, but overall it was another solid performance.
On Aug. 20 cellist Jari Piper gave his scholarship recital as the winner of this year's Young Alaskan Artist Award from the Anchorage Festival of Music. (In the interest of disclosure, I donate a little money to that fund among other nonprofit causes.) Attendance at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was bigger than at the museum concert, but acoustics seemed slushy. Spoken remarks were almost impossible to hear seven pews from the speaker. Perhaps that made the listeners extra-quiet, because the best sound came from several modern solo pieces. I kept looking for some kind of electronic boost, but couldn't see anything.
Accompanied by Juliana Osinchuk, Piper began with Claude Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano, impeccably executed but played with great emotional restraint. He moved on to the recent solo works, which were more interesting because of their special effects than ingratiating musicality. Piper made his instrument sound like a machine, perhaps a locomotive, in Michael Oesterle's rhythmically driven "Studio" and juggled numerous voices and timbres simultaneously in "Omaramor" by Osvaldo Golijov. The latter was said to be inspired by tango, though the connection was only to be discovered by the closest listening. Likewise Kaitlyn Raitz's "Blackbird Variations" emitted only the faintest glimmer of the Beatles' song from which it was putatively drawn. None felt particularly substantive, but they did let Piper demonstrate a remarkable range of audio acrobatics.
The program ended with Shostakovich's Sonata in D Minor, a more bourgeois piece than the Quintet, which finally gave us the chance to hear the cello do what it does perhaps better than any other instrument, simulate the human voice. The cantabile passages in the second theme of the first movement and the stoic lament of the Largo were among the most rewarding parts of the program.
After a standing ovation, Piper played another songlike meditation, a recent work titled "Dawn."
As Osinchuk, who has guided the award program for its 15 years, noted following the intermission, "We have great talent here in Alaska."
Do we hear with our eyes?
It's always a little intimidating to hear difficult music expertly played by people one-third one's age. Precocity aside, they tend to be lean, have all their hair and generally look better than those of us who were contemporaries with Sibelius -- a slender, shaggy violinist who wound up chubby and bald.
I tend to shut my eyes before a performer comes on stage and keep them shut for a while. The idea is to judge the musicality separately from the performer's appearance, as well as to deepen the audio sensation by cutting out the visual stimulation. The music's the important thing, right? And a musician's looks shouldn't matter with regard to his or her ability to play it.
But research reported in the April 19 edition of the Harvard Gazette indicates that it does matter -- mightily.
Chia-Jung Tsay has two Harvard Ph.D.s. One in organizational behavior, one in music. She's performed as a classical pianist in major venues and participated in several competitions. She conducted a series of experiments in which she asked a variety of people to pick the actual winner in a music competition by listening just to an audio recording of the contest, or viewing the soundless video of the same event, or watching a video with the sound.
"What I found was that people had a lower chance of identifying the eventual winner if they only listened to the sound," Tsay told the Gazette. "People who just had the video -- even without the sound -- had surprisingly high rates of selecting the actual winner. Even with professional musicians, who are trained to use sound, and who have both expertise and experience, it appeared that the visual information was overriding the sound."
In other words, appearance trumped a precise and inspired performance of the notes as written.
Tsay's findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may lead to women pianists buying more low-cut sleeveless red dresses and more men violinists scouring GQ to see what the guy in the Hermes ad is doing with his facial hair and everyone hitting the gym.
But maybe it's not the coat or the haircut. Perhaps what the videos convey isn't glamor but an additional layer of excitement. The Gazette wrote: "Because musical differences between two top performers are often slight, viewers can more easily pick up on visual cues they associate with high-quality performance, Tsay believes. Factors such as a performer's engagement, passion, and energy resonate."
That doesn't explain why those who listen only to the audio picked different winners. If genuine sonic accomplishment must take a back seat to visual theatricality, perhaps the performance is a disservice to the composer.
On the other hand, when it comes to live -- and, increasingly, recorded -- music, the experience is not exclusively sonic. Vocalists, who must add moving words to moving musical lines, get extra points for emoting with their faces or gestures. The highest paid opera singers are expected to fit the type of their characters, which in many cases means that 50-somethings have to try to look like teenagers. And surely the composers expect that and hope for it, though it's mostly impractical to notate such things.
Wind and string soloists often sway or "dance" with their instrument, perhaps not intentionally, but it's part of the communication. And, says one associate, "Watching the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra from the balcony of the Atwood, with all the violins moving in sync, is pretty striking."
How would we feel if we went into a concert hall and discovered the musicians would be playing from behind a curtain? Cheated comes to mind. For better or worse, we expect something of a show with our live classical music, though not as big a show as Roger Daltrey's strutting or Lady Gaga's costumes. (Curiously, jazz players can seem the most restrained of musicians, meditating on their tone and tune, eyes shut, posture largely still except to signal an entry or cutoff.)
This may be unfair. No one cares what a sculptor or painter or novelist looks like when we take in their work. But that comparison is flawed. Music performance and composition are two separate disciplines, as separate as playwriting and acting. No one cares what a screenwriter looks like -- but looks are everything for the people delivering his or her script on the big screen. The most arresting portrayal isn't always the one that most faithfully recites the words but the performance to which the actor brings something extra-scriptural and largely impossible to describe with any great degree of precision.
Likewise, few living serious composers are fashion plates, through composers' good looks were often noted back when they were audience-pleasing performers of music first and writers of music second. Unless they are actually on stage playing their stuff, no one knows whether they're handsome, beautiful or look like me.
On the other hand, there is clearly a trend toward youthful glamor as a selling point for solo musicians. Sixty years ago concert artists tended to be venerable veterans in white ties and tails. That shifted to suits and neckties, then turtlenecks and, lately, open-neck shirts for men. (With the option of switching back to white-tie formality; conductor Gustavo Dudamel offers a prime example.) For women soloists, a revealing gown baring at least the arms and hanging on a skinny sylph shape seems to be the ticket. Hair has become a matter of serious strategy.
To some extent, successful performers have always been keenly aware of what the public sees. The older generation -- Arthur Rubenstein, Isaac Stern, Wanda Landow-ska -- had repertoires of aloof stares and warm smiles they knew how to use like a jockey's switch. Vladimir Horowitz had a sly yet serious sideways glance he would sometimes throw out while in the middle of a flashy passage. It was particularly effective on television. I had a high school friend who excelled in guitar; he caught the Horowitz special on CBS and, at the next school show, incorporated the effect into his own performance of "Malaguena."
This works both ways. In her tell-all memoir "Mozart in the Jungle," oboist Blair Tindall recalls watching an orchestra come on stage with sour expressions, disheveled clothes and lethargic carelessness, turning off the audience before a note was played.
That said, I hope we're not in for an era of "air-pianism," with photogenic people emotively waving their arms in time with a recording. I still kind of like hearing something good with my eyes shut.
Taco Bell actors -- phone home
Ron Holmstrom, featured as Bob Hansen's lawyer in "The Frozen Ground," is still trying to locate several Alaskans involved in last year's Taco Bell commercial, the one that had a Taco Bell truck helicoptered into Bethel. Apparently there's some paperwork still needing to be filled out. Anyone having a contact for the following is asked to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org: Ryan Burke, Jesse Hamilton, Alyson Hoffman, Kelley Kubile, Tyler McFarland, Allison McIntyre, Alfred Michael, Mark Muro, Victoria Nechodomn and Savannah Westenbarger.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM