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Carnegie Hall Voices: Jeremy Geffen on the Memory of Great Performances

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 by Schubert.

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 them).

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.

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