And now to the question I have been asked most in recent weeks: "What did you think of the Kiri Te Kanawa concert?"
Indeed from the frequency of that query and the number of people who packed the Salt Lake Tabernacle two nights running, it was evidently the most eagerly awaited musical event of the season. Which may account for the surprise that usually greets my answer: "Not really my kind of program."No question, the voice itself is something to hear, big and creamy and, if anything, taking on added luster as it floated out into the Tabernacle. (Why, I wonder, did she think it ever needed to be amplified?) At least that was the impression Saturday, the night I stopped by (I had another review Friday). And had it been lavished on something like "Cosi fan tutte," "Rosenkavalier" or even a selection of Cantaloube songs I probably would have been there both nights, if possible, to luxuriate in the sheer sound of the instrument.
Interpretively, however, I find her a comparatively bland singer, and nowhere more so than the Broadway musicals - e.g. "West Side Story," "My Fair Lady," etc. - she has recorded, to much acclaim at the cash register, in recent years. For my money these demand a stylistic sense every bit as specific as those required by a Bach aria or the songs of Hugo Wolf. Besides which, the idea of an evening of "Kiri's Greatest Hits" - or anybody's greatest hits, for that matter - isn't where it's really at for me, musically speaking. And that is what I want to explore here, the difference between an appreciation that focuses on the performing artist and one that focuses on the work of art itself.
There is a difference, after all. On the one hand the most a performer can do is give pleasure, ideally by illuminating, perhaps uniquely, the piece itself. Sure, if Horowitz were performing here next season I'd probably be there to hear him whatever he played, even if it were nothing but his own transcriptions of Bizet (e.g., the "Carmen" Fantasy) and John Philip Sousa. But I'd be a lot more interested if I knew he were doing something like Schumann's "Kreisleriana" or an evening of Beethoven sonatas. Because although the work cannot really exist apart from the artist - i.e., it must be performed to exercise its full effect - it is nonetheless the work, in the artist's hands, that alters and informs our consciousness.
In my experience the true artist understands that relationship, seeing himself or herself as the servant of the composer. Not that most aren't also trying to make an effect on their own; otherwise why would pianists play the Moszkowski etudes? But the line nonetheless exists and normally it's not hard to tell when a performer has crossed it.
Take, for example, the tenor who was heard to proclaim following his success at the Met as Otello, "I think the Wagner roles will work well for me." (Not surprisingly, they didn't.) Or the general feeling that Virgil Fox had gone off the deep end toward the end of his career when the effect (including the visual) began to take precedence over the music. By contrast Helen Traubel turned out to be a big success on the nightclub circuit because, contrary to expectations, she took that music on its own terms. And although Glenn Gould's interpretations were often quirky, one usually sensed that he was trying to find something new in the piece as opposed to a new marketing ploy.
So it isn't a matter of snobbishness - i.e., this music is better or more serious than that music - as much as dedication. For me that happened early on, when I realized that music wasn't just an adventure in sound but an exploration of thought and feeling. And I'm not saying that wasn't true for the multitudes who turned out to hear Dame Kiri sail through the likes of "Ave Maria" and "You'll Never Walk Alone."
What I'm saying is, given the choice, I'd rather get into Verdi's or Mozart's head than hers, or even Jerome Kern's. And, again in my experience, that can usually best be done by immersing oneself in their more extended works as opposed to the usual concert arias. If there is a greater opera than "Don Giovanni," for example, I don't know what it is, and not despite but largely because of what it says about the human condition. (Ditto "Show Boat" vis-a-vis the American musical theater.) And although I have heard Te Kanawa sing a wonderful Donna Elvira, I prefer to hear it in the context of a complete performance of the opera, where she is generally surrounded by more forceful characters, than extracted aria by aria on its own.
That we didn't get her that way evidently made more people happy than otherwise. I don't dispute that enjoyment or the largesse that made it possible. But for me those kinds of displays tend to be less rewarding than immersing myself in, say, the "Eroica" Symphony or, courtesy of the neighborhood opera company, getting to know Mimi and Rudolfo - and by extension Puccini - all over again.
Those are the experiences that animate and amplify, mainly because it is the composers who really have something to say. (In all the Pavarotti stories, for example, have you seen one that talks about his view of the world?) In short, it's the old business of art as something that both teaches and delights. And, in terms of the former, it's a rare performer who can find something there the composer didn't put in to begin with, whether he was aware of it or not.
That's where the theater crowd generally has it all over the typical concert audience, in that they usually don't go to see a performer as much as a play. (For some reason the movies appear to be different, although apparently even the presence of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman couldn't save "Ishtar.") Exceptions might be Sarah Bernhardt's farewell tour or John Gielgud's Shakespearean anthology of some years back, "The Ages of Man." Still, I'd be willing to bet that even first-timers who attended the latter came away more impressed with Shakespeare than with Sir John.