“Good” Performance?

What makes a performance good?  This post is an attempt to, very briefly, address an issue with which I have grappled for a long time.

The conservatory model would have us believe that the measure of what is good has to do with a transcendental ideal of what is good music.  This view of “good” is caught up in composer intentions, faithfulness to the score, and historical-stylistic accuracy.  It operates on what Joe Panzner in The Process that is the World, calls a model-copy relationship.   The idea of “good” relies on a model against which musicians must measure themselves.

HOWEVER, to follow the logic of the model-copy relationship, I will share a story I heard flutist Robert Dick tell.  In an attempt to recreate what he thought was the greatest performance of Bach’s E Minor Sonata, he slowed down a recording by Julius Baker in order to note his specific vibrato and inflection.  After pain-painstakingly recreating every nuance, he played this version for Baker who declared the project a failure.  He said that Robert had lost himself in an attempt to recreate Baker’s performance.  This story seems to be evidence against the model-copy values.

To follow logic in the other direction, I am constantly reminded of a competition in which I participated a few years ago.  I prepared a work for flute alone that was written without barlines and took this lack of information as justification for artistic freedom.  I additionally prepared the work from memory so that I could be able to give in to my artistic whims in the moment.  However, when I competed, I was counted off for not following the indicated tempi precisely.  Even though I felt like I performed with passion and expression, the judges and the audience did not judge it as “good” per se.

To deal with this apparent paradox, perhaps we must reject the duality of the situation. It is clearly a losing battle to try to recreate some transcendental ideal as it will only serve to frustrate and confine us.  However, it will be equally difficult to find value in doing whatever we want.  Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  Perhaps plurality is better view of the world.

I think many of us are on a lifelong journey to find that equal balance of what Joe Panzner calls “discipline” and “recklessness”.  The pursuit of this balance is itself “good”.


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