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January 6, 2010

Pianist Byron Janis gives expert interpretation of what interpretation means

The one issue that interests me more than any other in classical music (all music, really) is interpretation, what the performer does with the notes provided. Not how they play or sing those notes -- the accuracy and virtuosity side of things -- but how they make truly individual musical statements, how they reveal their own interpretive ideas (or lack of same).

I'm always intrigued by the reviews of some of my colleagues who get considerably bothered when a musician strays from the printed boundaries -- going slower or faster than the tempo marking in the score, increasing or decreasing the volume in violation of what is written, etc. -- as if the object of performing is to present fundamentally the same thing, over and over, remaining totally respectful and subservient to the composer.

Yeah, I can understand that thinking, and I can almost buy it, until

I hear an artist go wonderfully "astray" and create an indelible experience.

So I was delighted to find an article by the excellent pianist Byron Janis in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal on this topic of interpretive freedom. I couldn't agree more. Here are some excerpts:

The score is really a blueprint for our creative talents and, consequently, our interpretive options abound ... No score will tell you how to play allegro (quickly)—there are a lot of different "quicklies" to go around. No score will give you the coordinates for playing rubato (freely), agitato (agitated) or semplice (simply) ... 

"As far as my experience goes," Brahms wrote, "every composer who has given metronome marks has sooner or later withdrawn them" ...

(Janis describes a recital where Chopin repeated one of his Mazurkas, playing it the second time) with such a radically different interpretation—tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed—that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka ... He would often say, "I never play the same way twice."


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:06 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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