July 7, 2009
A member of the audience, somebody I’d seen backstage more than once before, came up to me recently after a concert I had just played. He smiled broadly, shook my hand enthusiastically, and said, “Great concertâ€¦ really.”
In the midst of thanking him, that last word, “really,” finally registered. Really? Excuse me sir, but what about all the other times you congratulated me without that “really” to top it off. Were those flattering remarks merely pro forma niceties? Or was the added “really” a kind of third stage rocket that lifted my garden variety “great concert” into the rarified stratosphere of something even greater than great? Still another thought occurred to me: Did “really” represent something far more ominous. Perhaps this listener had never cared for my playing before. I became indignant with the thought. If the guy didn’t like the way I played, he should have told me so.
But, whom am I kidding. When if ever, have I gone backstage to tell someone that his Allegro non troppo was too fast, or his octaves messy, or that his early Mozart sounded like late Brahms? Come to think of it, who has ever told me as I packed up my fiddle and bow that I should go home and practice some more. I would have to conclude that the people who stand in line to congratulate musicians after concerts are divided into two groups: those that tell the truth, as in “I just loved your performance,” and those that don’t, as in “I just loved your performance.”
In music school, we students trained to be performers, but over late night beer we also honed our skills at post-concert deception. The discomfort of having to face friends after they had played less than wonderfully inspired us to come up with phrases for backstage use that technically told no lies: “Your performance was—how should I say this—indescribable.” “Out of this world.” Or “I will never, ever forget how you just played.”
But why must one only tell the truth when the truth is pretty? Along with the possibility of bruising a performer’s fragile ego, an honest appraisal has the real likelihood of doing some good. During a break in a Guarneri String Quartet recording session with Arthur Rubinstein, the pianist told us about a Paris concert he had once played. After an enormous ovation and with a huge backstage mob waiting to congratulate him, Rubinstein and his entourage finally exited the stage door in anticipation of the dinner party that awaited them. It was raining heavily outside but Rubinstein suddenly called out for his friends to stop. He had noticed a man waiting patiently half hidden in the shadows and already drenched to the skin. Rubinstein approached the poor, bedraggled fellow who was obviously waiting for him. The pianist thanked him for braving the elements. Flushed with the concert’s spectacular success, it was the least he could do. “Would you like an autograph,” he asked kindly. “Oh no,” replied the man. “I just wanted to tell you that your Liszt B Minor Sonata was awful.”
Rubinstein clearly relished telling the story, but who knows whether the blunt critique might not have acted as some kind of benevolent shock therapy. Perhaps Rubinstein awoke the next morning, wandered over to his piano, and began to practice Liszt’s B Minor Sonata as never before.
You too might be able to offer a useful service to a musician the next time you’re backstage after a mediocre performance. Waiting your turn, you’ll inevitably hear people in front of the line lie through their teeth, as in “I just loved your performance,” or “I will never, ever forget your playing.” Remembering what your parents told you (honesty is always the best policy), here’s what you might do, all in the interest of elevating music to the next level, mind you. Pump the performer’s hand enthusiastically, smile sincerely, and offer a gentle but honest critique. How about: “Awful concert—really.”
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