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That was beautiful, whatever it was

Are classical concerts, in general, overly explanatory and proscriptive? Our preconceived ideas about a composer or piece can keep us from listening with fresh ears

Yuja Wang caused a small sensation at Carnagie Hall by throwing her programme to the winds.

New York

CARNEGIE Hall was packed, including extra seats on the stage, for a recital by pianist Yuja Wang. Her programme offered 13 wildly contrasting works spanning three centuries, from Bach and Galuppi through Chopin and Brahms to Ravel, Scriabin, Berg and Federico Mompou.

But, in a message that was broadcast to the audience before she appeared onstage, Wang alerted everyone that she might not follow the order of works as printed in their playbills.

"I firmly believe every programme should have its own life and be a representation of how I feel at the moment," she said. "I want to let the music surprise me. Please experience the concert with all of your senses and an open mind, and enjoy the ride."

Musical rides can certainly be enjoyable, especially with a superb artist like Wang as your guide. Yet as she began to play that night in late February, many in the audience looked confused. People all around me were rifling through their programmes, trying to figure out whether they were hearing a sonata by Scriabin or Berg, a Chopin mazurka or a Brahms intermezzo, a watery piece by Ravel or a lilting work by Mompou.

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I sympathised with those who seemed rattled. After all, isn't knowing what piece you're hearing pretty crucial? It can certainly help one's appreciation to place music in a historical and stylistic context.

Yet I support what I believe was Wang's intention. Our preconceived ideas about a composer or piece can keep us from listening with fresh ears. An intermezzo by the mighty Brahms? Before you hear a note, you may already have decided it's great.

But what about Berg? If you don't care for atonal music - or think you don't - you might close your mind and ears if you see a piece of his coming up next on a programme. If you had done that at Wang's recital, you would have missed fully taking in her rhapsodic performance of Berg's early, extraordinary one-movement sonata. Yes, his harmonic language here pushes the boundaries of tonality to the breaking point. But this restless piece is nevertheless steeped in the world of late Brahms and Mahler. In keeping its identity in some way a secret, Wang might have encouraged more people to really listen to it.

When it comes to encores, classical audiences have long been used to hearing unidentified pieces. Some recitalists do prefer to introduce their encores. But more than half the time, I'd estimate, artists say nothing and just play. An encore is like an added treat, and many musicians seem to enjoy keeping their audiences guessing.

This happened just four days after Wang's recital, when pianist Daniil Trifonov played a Bach programme at Alice Tully Hall, devoted mostly to a magnificent account of The Art of the Fugue. He then gave elegant performances of three encores, wonderful pieces that were surely unfamiliar to most of us, including me. It turned out that they were all composed by sons of Bach: first, a short sonata by Johann Christian, then a polonaise by Wilhelm Friedemann and finally a rondo by Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Revealing striking similarities between very different pieces

Clearly, Trifonov wanted us to just listen. Yet I think he missed an opportunity to engage his audience members by letting them in on what they were hearing. I bet that would have made people more excited; instead, many visibly shifted in their seats, looking puzzled.

I was struck by how many people at Carnegie Hall, too, seemed discombobulated by not knowing what Wang was playing at any given moment. After all, the programme listed the works; she just altered the order. During the intermission, I overheard some disgruntled audience members complaining that they felt manipulated.

Wang clearly hoped her listeners would embrace what she was doing as liberating and heed their immediate impressions of the music. She seemed intent on revealing striking similarities between very different pieces. She blazed through Scriabin's fiery Sonata No 5, yet she also brought out milky textures and scintillating colours in it that I've never heard played with such delicacy. The music sounded almost impressionist.

Practically without pausing, she began Ravel's Une Barque sur l'Océan, from his Miroirs suite. Suddenly I heard fresh resonances between the rippling runs of the Ravel and the Chopinesque filigree of the Scriabin. You wouldn't think of them as a pair, but hearing them together - ideally without knowing their identities - you could feel they were a natural fit.

But perhaps the fact that I recognised both pieces helped me to sit back and enjoy the ride. Audience members who were frustrated by not being sure what they were hearing may have reacted by being less receptive, rather than more.

My critic colleague and friend Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim believes that classical concerts are, in general, overly explanatory and proscriptive. Determined to present an alternative, she has created a series called Beginner's Ear.

"It's named after 'beginner's mind' ", Corinna told me recently, "an ideal in Zen that denotes a state of opening to the present moment, not encumbered by any mental construct, thinking, experience, preference or memories - things that can get in the way of us really, really engaging". Translating that ideal into the concert setting is at the heart of these hour-long sessions, which feature a guided meditation that leads into a half-hour performance.

Sounding a little like Yuja Wang, Corinna said that each session is meant to be "a journey that takes you along", where one "surrenders to this hour".

"It's quite important to provide as little info up front as possible," she added, "so people can enter into a state of listening, sort of a quality of opening and trust". The main reason not to identify the pieces beforehand is to "disable the kind of mechanism that seeks to label or analyse", she said.

Making formal concerts less explanatory and more experiential

Many people sit in a concert with a nagging suspicion that the person behind them is some kind of an expert getting more out of the experience that they are.

"The idea is that the more information they have, the more likely they will enjoy it," Corinna said. But she has come to believe that the opposite can be true, too.

I agree. And this realisation has the potential to profoundly change the way classical music is presented. Corinna told me that at a Beginner's Ear session in January, pianist Taka Kigawa played a complex piece by Pierre Boulez, alternating short movements from the score with works by Liszt, Bach and Debussy. Those works were not identified until the end, when people typically learn what pieces they've heard and can go home with their curiosity satisfied. Surely many had no idea they were meditating to Boulez.

That could be the most applicable takeaway if the goal is to make formal concerts less explanatory and more experiential: Music lovers might well be more willing to let go and not fret over what they're hearing so long as they know they will find out in due course.

Wang could have found some way to make that concession. Perhaps at the end of each half, she could have told the audience the pieces she had played, or even suggested why she opted for that order. (At the end, true to form, she played three encores - and didn't identify those either.)

Explanatory concerts, if I can call them that, will always be central to classical music, from surveys of Beethoven's string quartets to an orchestra pairing Mozart and Stravinsky.

But if experiential offerings can foster more immediacy in listening, perhaps audiences can then bring some of that receptivity to listening to Trifonov play, say, The Art of the Fugue.

Of course, audience members take their cues from the environment they're in. It's a very different experience to hear a pianist perform in a yoga studio than in Carnegie Hall. For years, artists with adventurous streaks have been experimenting with programmes that daringly juxtapose old and new works and invite listeners to embrace their confusion and let themselves go. But these have tended to take place in smaller alternative spaces, not in the main auditorium at Carnegie.

I consider this a sign of changing times in the field. It clearly pushed some people out of their comfort zones, so good for Wang. For all the frustration expressed by some listeners, I did overhear at least one man cheerfully say, "Well, I didn't know what she was playing, but it was all beautiful." NYTIMES

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