One of the end-of-term concerts offered last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was a recital presented by the students of Wei He’s Violin Studio. This semester He posed each of these five students with a major challenge, following the old adage that you can only hit high if you aim high. The hit rate was impressive enough to make for what may yet be one of the most memorable Conservatory events of the season, as all five of the students rose to the challenge He had posed.
This made for a program that was a bit of a challenge in itself. Three of the students were tasked with three major three-movement concertos, those of Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 61 in D major), Jean Sibelius (Opus 47 in D minor), and Sergei Prokofiev (Opus 63 in G minor). The other two were assigned selections that made up in intensity for what may have been lacking in duration, Ernest Chausson’s Opus 25 “Poème” and Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane.”
As the evening progressed, it became apparent that this was a studio for students who had already established a firm command of technical proficiency. The real challenge in each of these five compositions involved turning that proficiency into the stuff of a memorable musical experience. After all, each of these pieces has now established itself as a repertoire standard; and, in a city that offers as many concert opportunities as San Francisco, it is hard to get through a concert season without encountering programs that offer most, if not all, of them. If the serious listener in the audience is to react with keenly focused attention, then the performer has to do much more than just jump through the requisite hoops.
Thus, what really mattered last night was that each student appreciated the need to find his/her own “voice” through the process of execution. I use scare quotes because this is a deliberately vague quality, defying the necessary and sufficient conditions of objective reasoning. Performers who have had to endure too many interviews may babble about “making the magic happen;” but commanding the attention of an auditorium full of listeners is not a matter of magic. Rather, it involves considerable deliberate and subjective thought to address one key question: What do I have to express about this music that will seize and maintain the listener’s attention?
All to often performers answer that question by reinforcing technical proficiency with a repertoire of idiosyncratic quirks that quickly reveal themselves as formulaic. This is a simple answer to a complex problem; and, following the logic of H. L. Mencken, it is inevitably wrong. He clearly did not allow his students to find “the easy way out” through such simple answers. Rather, it was a matter of discovering the potential for rhetorical expression without distorting the context established by the composer’s approach to both structural logic and the underlying grammatical considerations of harmonic progression and contrapuntal voice leading. As a result, each performance emerged as consistent with the listener’s contextual knowledge of the composer; but, through that command of rhetoric, it established its own unique presence in the immediacy of execution.
Last night’s performance was as much a “studio” in what a masterful teacher can do with well-trained students as it was a platform for five of those students to firmly establish their commitment to becoming performing artists of the highest order.