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Jean Ritchie

Jean Ritchie ~ Image by Cindy Funk via Flickr

What makes a performance authentic?

By “authenticity,” I mean honesty, heartfelt expression, and respecting the composer’s wishes at all times.

The opposite, which I find unacceptable, is allowing our own quirks to trump the composer’s notated guidelines, and pasting something false on top of the notes.  When that happens, the performer ignores the composer and becomes mired in his/her own importance.

One event some time ago got me thinking about authenticity.  Just before Christmas, Jean Ritchie threw a party.  Many of her singer friends were invited, as was the Norman Luboff Choir.  (Jean’s son Jon Pickow, a wonderful tenor, invited the choir.  I shall be forever grateful.)

During the festivities, the guests took seats along the walls of a very large room.  Then, in turn, each shared a song!

Every style, it seemed, was offered.  There was an early American song followed by a Shaker tune, then an Irish folk song, an Appalachian ballade, an old English carol, a Scottish folk song… everything.

I was in awe, speechless.  The singers were so honest, uninhibited, authentic, and absolutely sang securely in each style.  None had learned how to do that in school.

Every ornament and flourish was right on, as might be learned in school.  But here there was nothing in the way!  The style wasn’t imposed upon the music, it was the music.

I felt like an imposter, to tell the truth.  Everyone was so good!

Can classical performers be authentic?  After all, they learn music from the printed score.

There have been concerts from time to time that, for me and others I spoke to, didn’t make the cut.  These were major concerts presented on large series in major venues:

  • a Brahms lieder recital at Tanglewood ~ “der” and “und” (and every other syllable) always super-expressive, no sentences in evidence.  All the tempi were way too sloooooooooow.  The other two vocal fellows and I left at intermission.
  • a piano recital at UMass ~ the soloist had been “finding himself,” strolling the beach for two years.  He felt called upon to impose very slow tempi on Schubert.  Extremely boring.  If you’re 1/2 everyone else’s tempo, what does that tell you?  (He probably hadn’t heard anyone else play for two years!)
  • piano recitals where the soloist looks to the ceiling.  For what?  Inspiration from the plaster?  Self-indulgent, distracting, unnecessary.
  • gyrating performers ~ see previous description.  Is all that movement intended to show how “into” it you are?
  • a cello recital where “rubato” meant “do whatever you want” with no rhythmic structure.

These classical musicians and styles are, to me, authentic:

Of course there are others.  This is meant to facilitate thought, not provide a definitive list.

Please watch this brief video of Pete Seeger and Jean Ritchie.  This is a terrific example of authenticity.  Honesty, heartfelt expression, nothing in the way, nothing quirky imposed upon the music or the listener.  Direct communication.

Odetta was authentic in everything she sang.  She earned a music degree, later saying that “it was a nice little exercise, but it has nothing to do with my life.”  Give her a listen.

“This Little Light of Mine” was a favorite of hers.

Electrifying!  Makes me cry.

Odetta ~ Jericho (old)  Talk about power!

Listen to the way she uses her voice to provide rhythm!

UPDATE:  here are 2 links to related blog posts, shared in the Comments.  Thanks to Gail Fischler and Elaine Fine!

What do you find to be authentic?  What is false?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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