Classical Music 101: I will never know much, but at least I hope to learn something

By John Terauds on October 26, 2013

Whether a person is making it or listening to it, music is like the clichéd river whose waters are different every time one steps into it.

There’s the obvious: How a performer never plays or sings something the same, and how in our changing moods and environments, we never quite hear something the same twice.

There’s an evolutionary process at play (so to speak) as well, if musician or audience member allows it. If either party is committed to this act of making or consuming, they can choose to deepen their appreciation through careful scrutiny of the score, finding out more about the composer and his or her life context, of comparing interpretations.

Some people say classical music is an acquired taste. Not true. Any person should be able to have a pair of headphones slipped over their ears or be escorted into a performance space and be able to take something away from a piece of art music.

A listener could unquestioningly take in the same three Puccini or Verdi arias or Chopin Nocturnes for the rest of their life and never think more about it. And that is perfectly fine. Or they can let each piece open a window or a doorway into further explorations and adventures.

I am taken aback by how some performers spend very little time looking for extra insights into what they do. But if they’re happy and have an audience, why not?

Other performers obsessively delve into every nook and cranny of their repertoire, eagerly looking for a fresh insight.

The world’s more curious minds can revel in the glories of the masterclass, where a veteran passes along their knowledge and insight to a new generation.

In our scientific age, where there is supposed to be a theorem and proof for everything, followed by a published account of why, it’s easy to forget that making music is an oral and tactile art, painstakingly passed down from master to pupil in the tiniest of details.

The masterclass is our most accessible and, because everything is condensed, often most insightful manifestation of this oral process.

I find masterclasses invaluable. They are my continuing education, helping me sharpen my critical and analytical tools.

I will never know much, but at least I hope to learn something.

Ida Haendel
Ida Haendel

A case in point: In July, 76 years after she made her London début at the BBC Proms, violinist Ida Haendel gave a masterclass at the Royal College of Music, and, as is frequently the case now, the school has posted the occasion on YouTube.

76 years.

To put that span into perspective, it is the distance between J.S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 — or Franz Liszt’s first recitals in Paris and the premiere of Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Because stringed instruments are a mystery to me, I thought Haendel’s masterclass might be an opportunity to learn more about the violin.

There’s a nice Canadian connection, too — not just the fact that Haendel’s home base was Montreal for nearly 40 years.

Her first student is a very talented young Torontonian, Lyrit Milgram. At the time of the masterclass, the 21-year-old had completed her third year at the Royal College of Music and had just won a Ben Steinberg Musical Legacy Award from our city’s Temple Sinai Congregation.

Milgram plays her piece very nicely. Ever the Sophist, Haendel declares she has nothing to say — and then spends the next 45 minutes tearing the interpretation apart from several different perspectives.

Her first question: “Why did you choose this piece?”

How often I’ve sat at a concert and wanted to ask the performer or programmer the same question. It takes 3 seconds to ask, yet often contains the key to the success or failure of a concert.

Haendel has insights into maintaining the inner pulse of a piece of music and on the importance of the silences, not just the notes.

But my favourite moment is when Haendel reaches for the score, looks at it, and declares that the composer couldn’t possibly have meant to write that note, “because it’s not very musical.”

Is this the height of arrogance? No. A performer ends up making decisions like this — hundreds for each piece of music — every day. Interpretation is mixing the old with the new, of following tradition and breaking it, of putting oneself inside the composer’s head and then getting into an argument with them.

The more a listener knows about the process, the more they can appreciate how the instructions for the art of interpretation — and the art of deepening appreciation in the case of the listener — don’t fit into a book.

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Here is the full masterclass. Note that there’s a problem with the video and Milgram session runs twice before we go on to the next two students:

John Terauds

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