At intermission of the Juan Diego Florez recital at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City on Sunday, the woman to my right asked me if I was a singing student. In part I assume this was because I was wearing black athletic pants and a shirt that said “I don’t roll on Shabbos,” but the other part was presumably because I was taking notes. I told her that I wasn’t a singer in any way, shape, or form but that I knew what was good, and this was good. She agreed. I assure you she agreed.
That was one of the asides to a performance that left me shaking my head in a number of ways. Florez and his accompanist, Vincenzo Scalera, put on a show like Barry Bonds taking batting practice circa 2001, hitting everything out of the park and throwing the crowd into a mild frenzy. There were three encores and a total of ten curtain calls, countless uncomrtable-sounding whooping noises, and a few small groups hollering something in Spanish from time to time. Florez and Scalera deserved all this and then some, but it got me wondering what audiences gauge their reactions on in a performance that they love. Was it the effortless high notes? The charming stage presence? The simple and effectiove repertoire? The flashy runs? I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me it was the fundamentals. It’s always the fundamentals.
All the greatest musicians possess the mastery of the basics, but it’s something that often gets overlooked in favor of intangible qualities that reduce the power of the performer to some type of mysticism. The truth is much simpler and much more complex, especially when it comes to the human voice. To me what makes a voice great is command of the many facets that go into creating a beautiful sound and the musical concepts associated with them. In other words, Juan Diego Florez is not a great singer because he was blessed by an unseen force or Force, he’s a great singer because his pitch is spot on, his vibrato is smooth and controlled, and his diction is first-rate.
This does not mean that intangible categories do not exist - variety and individualism say so, or else why even bother trying to fill Caruso’s shoes? In my program I wrote that Florez was perhaps the finest tenor I had heard, non-Pavarotti division, and a lot of that has to do with vocal characteristics unique to him that cannot be explained. But the common link between all great performers, including Florez, is the ownership of the very foundation upon which their art rests, and that means making sure you’re singing the right notes and controlling your vibrato and breathing properly and everything else. I think these ideas disappear from our consciousness a bit when we encounter greatness, especially in the arts, but it’s good to remember that greatness can only come after fundamental soundness.
As I mentioned above, the woman to my right was really into the concert. I know this for one reason: when each song was over, she would let out a sigh that sounded like she was having a low-level orgasm and shake her head in amazement. I mentioned in my review (theoretically on the internet soon!) that I wondered if she was going to be alright after the show was over and there were no more songs coming. I don’t have any word on if she made it, but I didn’t see any news reports about anyone fainting at the hall or downtown or anything, so I guess she’s good. It’s interesting to consider what her husband thinks about it. I’m not sure what my girlfriend would think if I was making O faces and creepy sighs at an Anna Netrebko recital, but I honestly felt a bit bad for the guy. Suffice it to say, if they have any kind of agreement in place where they can have sex with a famous person and not have it be considered cheating, I’m pretty sure Juan Diego Florez is on her list.
And yet she wasn’t even the craziest audience member within 5 seats of me. That honor would go to the woman a few seats down who felt compelled to sing along for at least half the concert. The poor bastard sitting next to me asked her to stop half a dozen times or more, but she never did. She looked like a sweet older lady, but it seemed like she completely ruined the performance for that guy (and ruined it for the rest of us in her vicinity a little bit). The entire thing led me to two unrelated thoughts: first, how awesome would it be if I took my horn to a symphony concert and was like “I’ve always wanted to play Mahler 6!”? And second, why is classical music the only genre in which it’s bad form to sing along?
Next month we’re going to see Radiohead at the Sprint Center, and I imagine that people will sing everything that Thom Yorke and Co. do, even when not solicited by the point-the-mic-into-the-crowd move. It will be annoying, but it will be accepted. Tangentially, wouldn’t it be awesome if classical musicians had a point-the-mic-into-the-crowd move like “hey, you guys know this, why don’t you finish this line of Nessun Dorma?” The reason for the double standard, besides the obvious “classical music fans are elitist pricks” angle that most would probably assume, is that classical music is the only style of music that is unquestionably better live.
Jazz, because of improvisation, has the POTENTIAL to be better, but it isn’t by definition. And rock and rap musicians need the polish that a studio provides no matter how good a musician they are. Spontanaeity, creativity, blah blah blah…I promise you that Sgt. Pepper sounds a hell of lot better on the album than it ever did in an arena. I suppose a pretty good case can be made for folk or world music being better live, but it’s at least a debate. I don’t know of a single person who has ever said, “you know, I don’t need to go, I’ll just put on this CD of Beethoven 5.” Classical music opens up in live performance like none other, and that to me is why the “elitist prick” fans of the genre are such sticklers for whatever decorum they claim to abide by. Will the dude sitting next to me ever get to hear Juan Diego Florez in recital ever again? With such great seats (seriously, they were awesome seats)? In that repertoire? Who knows? But that’s why we have to shut the fuck up when we go, because the opportunities can be finite and everyone else deserves the chance to have a once-in-a-lifetime memory that doesn’t include your weak attempts at surround sound.
There were some pretty good composers on the program, including Donizetti, Gounod, and Meyerbeer. There were some charming songs written by some virtual unknowns. But there was also some Rossini, and aside from the performers, he won the day as far as I’m concerned. Rossini is a total genius, but I think he gets lost in the shuffle a bit by being lumped in with the other not-nearly-as-good bel canto composers. He’s in a class all his own and could easily stand toe-to-toe with the best the Romantic period has to offer. I don’t really have anything to add to that. Just know that he is a bad ass.