In a continuing series in which key Carnegie Hall voices share their thoughts on a range of topics, Jeremy Geffen, our director of artistic planning, reflects on great performances, which come in many guises.
Now that the concert season has begun the summer feels like a distant memory, so it seems difficult to believe that until the beginning of this month Carnegie Hall had been dark for nearly four months. And while after the intensity of an eight-month season much of that cessation provided a necessary break for the ears and minds of those of us who attend a significant volume of performances in the regular season, the summer offers an equally seductive array of musical activities, albeit in different formats and surroundings.
My summer’s musical activities centered on festivals—both in the
United States and around the world—and also included judging competitions for
young singers and pianists focused on song literature. Song-singing is by
nature one of the most personal and complicated acts of performance. A great
song performance requires an unusual mixture of bravery and vulnerability;
preparation and spontaneity; empathy and respect for the composer, poet, and
the speaker (or speakers) represented in each text; interpretative unity
between singer and pianist; and, of course, vocal and pianistic excellence.
Competitors in the International Song Competition at London’s venerable Wigmore Hall were
required to prepare three separate programs of songs in at least three
languages, and in two of the three rounds they were required to perform songs
Many performers shy away from the unusual interpretive difficulties of
Schubert songs, more because of the depth of subtlety required to express the
seeming simplicity of many of his songs than because of overt technical or
virtuosic demands. Yet despite these interpretive challenges and the youth of
the competitors, many times over the course of that week in London, I was deeply touched by the maturity
and sophistication a young performer brought to a Schubert song, some of which
were new to me (which is a forgivable sin as the composer wrote over 600 of
For me, great performances of the present trigger memories of great
performances of the past, and I found myself returning many times to a
particular concert in Isaac Stern Auditorium / Ronald O. Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall in January 2008 during which
soprano Dorothea Röschmann sang Schubert’s “So lasst mich scheinen” with
pianist Julius Drake, though that specific piece was not performed by any of
the competitors. The text of this song comes from Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm
Meister’s Apprenticeship; in the episode depicted in this song, the young
girl—Mignon—has distributed gifts to children at a birthday party in costume.
Though the children had been told that an angel has come, they immediately
recognized Mignon—dressed as an angel and robed in white—but are confused as
to whether she is herself or in fact an angel. When she has finished giving
presents, she is reluctant to change clothing to return to her regular
appearance because, unbeknownst to all except Mignon, she is dying. She sings
this song, which translates to “So let me appear, until I become so / Don’t take
the white robe away from me,” expressing that she not only wants to remain in
costume but that, though she is young, she will soon die and become the angel
which she knows is her destiny. Schubert’s hymn-like strophic setting takes
this potentially melodramatic scene and creates from it a moment of
transcendence—one of realization, acceptance, and artless grace.
At the time of that revelatory performance, I did not know the story of
Mignon, but that did not impede me—or anyone else in the Hall—from being
deeply moved by the otherworldly purity and depth of expression Ms. Röschmann
and Mr. Drake brought to that song. During that moment, I lost track of time and
lost myself to the song. The memory of it stays with me to this day, in much
the same way that every great performance does.
People often remark to me that they feel they do not know enough about
music to be able to appreciate it. My experience with “So lasst mich scheinen” reminded
me that while knowledge can deepen one’s relationship with a piece, it is not a
prerequisite for appreciating—or even understanding—it. A great performance
can transform even the most seemingly foreign work into something as natural
and subtly expressive as one’s own native tongue; it can make unfamiliar poetry
understood without words.
Great performances happen in Carnegie Hall with such frequency that it
is easy to take them for granted, especially when one attends as many concerts
as I do in my professional role. But while performances are ephemeral, great
performances will forever remain in one’s memory in one guise or another. One
day I hope to hear some of those young competitors performing on one of
Carnegie Hall’s stages and think back to the beauty of their performances at
the Wigmore Hall competition.