So it is with certain musicians as well. The pianist Yuja Wang, for example. She is brilliant, but so are lots of other elite pianists. Ah, but those other pianists don’t come out on stage like Ms. Wang wearing micro-micro-miniskirts and 6-inch stiletto heels. Then there’s the pianist Lang Lang, whose performance shtick has become so exaggerated that he is, for many of his fellow professionals, impossible to watch. (And for others, impossible to listen to, as evidenced by his unfortunate sobriquet of “Bang Bang”.)
The fact that both Ms. Wang and Mr. Lang have inspired millions of Chinese children to take up the piano is admirable. That is a function of their stardom, which is function of their personas. Which means that at the end of the day, their concerts are as much (if not more) about selling a personal brand than of the particular music under performance.
(This is not a new issue. Franz Liszt was without a doubt the greatest pianist of his time. But the Liszt legend was a product of his performing persona, which bordered on carnival hucksterism. Many of his greatest contemporaries, including Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Joseph Joachim, were physically revolted by Liszt’s onstage shenanigans. But Liszt did indeed put people in seats and money in the bank.)
Speaking as an educator who wants to see concert music thrive, I’ve no objection (in theory at least) to Yuja Wang’s shoes and Lang Lang’s flamboyance. However, speaking as a composer, such performers drive me crazy. As to why, I would invoke the title of a book by the conductor Eric Leinsdorf: “The Composer’s Advocate” (Yale University Press, 1981). For Leinsdorf, a performer is – first, foremost and always – a composer’s advocate. In his introduction he writes:
“The indispensible partners of knowledge [and technique] are imagination, thoughtful intelligence, and ultimately the willingness to forget ourselves in the service of what we undertake to represent – the composer and his [or her] music.”
The operative phrase: “forget ourselves in the service of the music.”
As a composer, I want a composer’s music to come first in a performance and not the performer. I want to hear, understand, and be elevated by the music, and not be distracted by high heels, uncombed hair, and buttock movements more appropriate to hemorrhoidal discomfort than pianistic execution. I want performers to forget themselves in the service of the music.
Admittedly, there is a fine line between passionate execution and off-putting extravagance, but I know when that line has been crossed and I, personally, do not like it. Give me the likes of András Schiff, Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini, Alicia de Laroccha, Emil Gilels, and Murray Perahia any day over the foolishness that often passes for “pianistic persona” on the concert stage.