Photo: “fresh start” by Vitorio Benedetti
In 2003 I performed in the Butler Little Theatre’s production of the play La Ronde. I was the Parlor Maid. I had two scenes, each opposite a different actor.
For me, one of the greatest challenges of performing in that play came at the end of my second scene. The other actor had left, so I was alone on stage, sitting on a couch. I sat for a moment, then opened a little humidor that was on a table next to me, took — stole — a cigar out of it and tucked the cigar away (in my garter, tee hee). Then I settled back looking pleased with myself. Lights down, end of scene. Not a complicated series of actions; always got a laugh.
What was challenging was making it new every time we performed — I mean, making it look like I was stealing the cigar for the first time every time. I had difficulty acting as though I had never thought of such a thing and then — just then, on the spur of the moment — thought of it and did it. There were no lines and no other person to play off, so all the focus and communication were in my movements and facial expressions. My problem was that I would “telegraph” my action, giving away what I was about to do, which diminished the surprise. Rehearsing didn’t much help; I had to learn to surprise myself to make it work.
The ability to bring freshness, newness, and openness to live performance is a key difference between the good and the great. Musicians, like actors, rehearse their parts hundreds and thousands of times, alone and with others. Getting the technical details right while also bringing in emotion and interpretation is hard. Making it also look and feel new each time is a special skill.
I especially enjoyed violinist Gil Shaham’s performance with the PSO this weekend because of the way he made the experience of a live classical concert feel new, special, and jubilant. It’s been said that he “radiates an infectious enjoyment of the music,” but this barely conveys what it’s like to watch him. His face fairly glows as he listens to the orchestra, his expression seeming to show he has never before heard anything so lovely, so surprising.
And then it comes the moment for him as the soloist to join in, and it seems that he is suddenly discovering the notes and phrases he plays. He looks around at times as if he had just thought up a really neat bit that would fit beautifully in with what the others are playing, and he is so happy to share it with everyone.
The two violin concerti in this weekend’s performances were each chock full of interplay between the orchestra and the soloist, with such a dynamic range. How quietly and delicately Shaham played at moments, then suddenly changing to play with vigor and volume along with the other strings.
Through it all, his skill was astonishing. I think though that it was his exuberant, shining delight — in the music, in the other musicians, in Maestro Honeck, and in the very act of playing — that most charmed the audience and made the night unforgettable.