I went to a concert last night and was reminded of how easily I get bored.

Originally posted February 3, 2011

At the Centennial Concert Hall here in Winnipeg last night I saw, more importantly heard, the world famous string quartet Kronos perform. I was reminded of how easily I can get bored at concerts – not because Kronos was dull, but quite the opposite. Once the main program was over, and following three encores, I realized how entranced I had become. I had been fully engaged in the performance and had become completely unaware of my surroundings. This is how any concert of any genre, or movie, or play, or any type of live performance should be. Unfortunately, more often than not I find myself daydreaming or wondering what’s for dinner the next day. But not last night.

So I began to ponder why this is. In a previous blog I had discussed how I felt that “melody” was the key factor in a song that stands the test of time. But last night I began to wonder what is the essential ingredient, the pièce de résistance, of a good live performance. After thinking through the elements of a great concert: superb acoustics; good lighting; creative visual displays; a very receptive audience; and technically and brilliantly executed playing of good repertoire, I realized that I had experienced all of these aspects before in many other concerts and had still been as bored as a pacifists pistol.

However, what Kronos had was “ownership.” They owned the stage, the repertoire, the playing, and most importantly the audience’s undivided attention. They did this through a confidence that was sensed as soon as they walked onto the stage – not an arrogance – but a confidence in what they knew they could and would do.

And here is the crux of the whole matter. They are able to accomplish this confidence because they “own” the musical phrasing and expression. Although each member of the group is a technically superb player, it is their exceptional ability to shape musical phrases within an enormous dynamic range that draws you in and holds your attention. I’ve heard many performers on a wide array of instruments of all genres, from classical to heavyrock, who play with mind-blowing technique and precision – but many of them are just plain bland. Without authentic musical expression, it just puts me to sleep (or daydream about dinner). In fact, I have heard some amazing performers play all sorts of wrong notes, but because they are focused on musicality and expression, those errors are easily forgiven. And of course, when great technique combines with powerful expression, true magic happens – as Kronos has demonstrated.

Currently I am studying composition with Winnipeg composer Jerry Semchyshyn. We are working through a wide array of contemporary repertoire to study what techniques and creative devices the composers have employed. Anyone familiar with contemporary “classical” music – music by composers such as Penderecki, Corigliano, and Glass, will know that most often traditional harmonies and rhythms are not used. Art music such as this is often thought of as weird and often dissonant. But what Kronos exemplifies is that with proper expression and control, true music is not dependent upon any particular harmonic system. True music lies within the artist’s ability to communicate – to keep you on the edge of your seat as a phrase is seductively spun out.

By no means does this concept apply only to classical music. It applies to ALL music. Some of the greatest rock bands of all time know this. Great guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmore, and Brian May know this. Great singers like Freddy Mercury, Robert Plant, and Bono know this. They understand musicality – the ability to communicate clearly and passionately through their instruments and voices. And a singer doesn’t even need to be all that great pitch-wise. They just need to be passionate and have confidence.

But as I said before, this passion, confidence, and expression when combined with great technique leads to a whole new level of brilliance. As has sometimes been attributed to Beethoven, “To be a musician, you must have the spirit of a gypsy and the discipline of a soldier.”

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