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August 22, 2011

Monday Musings: How just a few notes can create lasting magic

Like so many artsy types, I spend a good deal of most Sunday mornings poring through the New York Times. It's what one does, after all.

After going through Sunday Review and getting all worked up again about one political issue or another (speaking of Sunday Review, will Gail Collins please, please finish writing her damn book and get back to penning those marvelous op-eds?), I turned to the A&L section.

Zachary Woolfe, whose work has impressed me a good deal since he joined the Times stable of music writers last season, had an interesting column on the nature of charisma -- why some classical musical artists have it, some don't; why "you simply can't look away from" the charismatic ones, how their gift can elevate "even the most unassuming musical passage."

(Nice to see an essay on such a subject given prominent play on the front page of the section. That wouldn't -- couldn't -- happen at a lot of papers in this country.)

Reading Woolfe's article made me start to think about ...

the charisma-filled performers I have been lucky enough to experience live. I thought about it so long that it was suddenly the next day, and thus perfectly suited to my Monday Musings feature-ette.

One of the things I admire most about certain classical artists -- instrumentalists, singers, conductors -- is their ability to change the whole equation, if you will, in the midst of a performance merely by the way they approach one small detail, perhaps an "unassuming musical passage," as Woolfe put it.

Yuri Temirkanov has charisma to spare. It can be awfully subtle, especially since he is loathe to smile until the end of a concert, but he sure has it, even in his bearing as he walks to the podium. He has it, too, in the distinctive way he conducts. Many people don't use batons these days, but no one uses his hands with quite the mesmerizing flow that Temirkanov has, the almost balletic motion.

The example I have been rerunning in my head since contemplating the charisma issue is Temirkanov's interpretation of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. When I first him lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in that work, I was blown away by a very small thing he did at the start of the lilting third movement.

There is no indication from Dvorak for a gently drawn out start to that movement. You can Czech out dozens of recordings of the symphony and hear dozens of conductors begin the movement in tempo. That's how it goes. But not to Temirkanov.

The way he stretched out the first notes, as if from a nostalgic dream, was so magical, so OMG, that I was a changed man. The entire symphony seemed more meaningful and involving, somehow, because of that tiny gesture in a single measure.

It was as masterful a touch of charismatic conducting as any I have ever heard. Much to my surprise, the other reviewer I saw of that particular interpretation said nary a word about this unusual feature (in addition to Baltimore performances, Temirkanov led the BSO in the Dvorak 8th at Carnegie Hall). I guess charismatic interpretations aren't always universally felt.

If I were a contestant on a variant of the old game show "Name That Tune," perhaps called something along the lines of "Name the Fewest Notes in a Performance That Totally Blew You Away," I could start with two.

Picture it: Charleston, S.C. The Spoleto Festival U.S.A. A production of "Der Rosenkavalier," starring Renata Scotto as the Marschallin. (I couldn't find a picture of her in this role, so one from her performance of Klytemnestra in "Elektra" with the Baltimore Opera will have to do -- that was pretty darn charismatic, too.)

There's a moment after the sublime, spine-tingling Trio in the last act, when the Marschallin, who has lost her young lover Octavian to the equally young Sophie, sees the two ecstatically in love. Sophie's father remarks to the Marschallin, "That's how it is with kids today" (or words to that effect). The Marschallin replies simple: "Ja, ja" ("Yes, yes").

I think the way a soprano gets her ja-ja's out can make all the difference in a long night of "Rosenkavalier." The inflection can make you feel all the heartbreak inside the character of a woman afraid of loneliness and the advance of time.

What Scotto did with those two words, those two notes ripped my heart out that day in Charleston. There was the slightest catch in her throat as she sang them. Nothing melodramatic, just real and honest and naked and devastating. Talk about your charisma.

Even the way Scotto then left the stage, hesitating just for a second in the doorway, was special; she communicated more with her back to the audience than many a performer can head-on. Man, that was great acting.

You never know when a charismatic jolt will hit you in a concert hall or opera house, which is one reason why it's worth going to live performances as much as possible.

I will never forget great moments I've witnessed, including Birgit Nilsson in "Elektra" in Vienna, earning 45 minutes of applause (almost half as long as the whole opera); Leontyne Price singing "This Little Light of Mine" with a radiance that could light Baltimore for a year; Carlos Kleiber conducting "Rosenkavalier"; Evgeny Kissin's Carnegie Hall debut; etc.

When music is made with the genuine, unforced spark of personality -- charismatic personality -- and when it speaks deeply to you, your life is changed somehow, not just in that moment, but ever after.

I'd love to hear from you about some life-changers you've experienced.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:55 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Clef Notes, Monday Musings


There have been three such charismatic performances for me over the years that I can recall off the top of my head:

Rudolf Nureyev in "Swan Lake" at the Mechanic Theater in the 1970's.

Leonard Bernstein conducting Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony in Central Park in the late 1980's.

Angela Gheorghiu in Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010.

Thanks. What great examples. TIM

I was at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia one evening in the early 1960's when Leopold Stokowski returned to the Philadelphia Orchestra after being away for over 25 years. It was nothing short of fantastic! I have never heard such an ovation when an artist came on stage. And the concert....I wil always remember it. What a fantastic man of music!

In 1957 I heard guitarist Andres Segovia at Carnegie Hall. When he played, often very softly, I could hear every note because the audience seemed to stop breathing; at the end of each piece the applause was deafening. As I recall, he played encores for about an hour with no one leaving the hall.

Thanks for that memory of the charisma-rich Segovia. I got to hear him once in the cavernous Constitution Hall and, just as you describe, the audience went dead still in order to hear him. Amazing. TIM

Lovely thought provoking piece.
This year the most heart stopping moment came strangely enough not in a concert hall but quay side as the ColumbianTall Ship ARC Gloria left Waterford City following the Tall Ships Festival.. The 160 strong crew dressed in red white and yellow were positioned at all points in rigging and singing Ships Anthem with gusto as the ship glided serenely down the river Suir. Wonderful!

The first time I went to the Muiskverein in Vienna, as soon as the players started tuning their instruments I felt surrounded by a cloud of wonderful sound. And I realized why it is regarded as the best concert hall in the world.

Thanks for the memory. It brought back a similar feeling of electiricty when I got there the first time. What a great place. TIM

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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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