The Pointless Pursuit of Perfection

07 Aug

More Mahler at the Proms last night (and shown on TV this evening) – Gustavo Dudamel conducting the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Miah Persson (Soprano) and Anna Larsson (Mezzo) in the Resurrection Symphony. Anyone following the #bbcproms hashtag on Twitter will be aware of the general reaction to the concert: “Best concert I’ve ever been to” (@MahlerMad); “Mindboggling performance” (@steef1910); “The performance is still with me, my breath remains stolen” (@flergh) and so on.

For many, that might have been the first performance of the work they had ever heard: if you were in that category, I envy you! For others, another rendition of a favourite piece to compare with those that went before. The (almost) unanimous reaction tells us that this remarkable group of people, all under 30 years old (actually, Dudamel is 30-and-a-few-months, and for the sake of chivalry, let’s make the soloists honorary 20-somethings) communicated something special to the audience, something which virtually obliterated all dissent.

Yet with the benefit of repeated hearing, one can find many things to criticise in the performance, though not, perhaps, in the choral contribution, which I thought exemplary. There were the usual handful of fluffs in the brass sections, and if one were hyper-critical, the final chords of the first two movements weren’t quite together, but these are the sort of things one learns to expect in live performance, and are barely worthy of mention.

Mostly, one’s words of caution concern the interpretation. Dudamel chose predominantly slow tempi throughout, causing the music sometimes to lose continuity. There are good reasons for choosing a measured approach to the music – perhaps you have less-able musicians, and want to help them get it right (certainly not the situation here), or maybe the acoustic of the venue demands it, lest the detail is swallowed up (possibly so in the Royal Albert Hall, though I feel one should trust the old barn a bit more to do its magic). In this case, I think Dudamel chose his tempi simply because he wanted to wallow in the beauty of it all – and it was beautiful – in other words, he was being indulgent.

He also coaxed the players into the extremes of dynamics, beyond what is sensible. For example, in the second movement, there was a section of pizzicato strings that was so soft it was barely audible from where I was sitting. The microphones, of course, picked it all up on the radio and on television, but the ensuing woodwind solo had to be louder, because it just isn’t possible to be that quiet on an oboe!

Worst of all were the sudden gear changes in tempo. Yes, Mahler does notate such things with great detail and frequency, but Dudamel sometimes lurches alarmingly from one speed to another – as @aaron_cassidy said on Twitter “Hey Gustavo – ‘Etwas’ doesn’t mean ‘Twice as'”. There were also sudden pauses here and there, which I think are misreadings of the score. For example, at two and four bars after figure 18 in the first movement, many but not all of the instruments have commas in their parts at the end of the bar. Dudamel took these as breaks in the music – mini pauses – but I think this is wrong. If Mahler had meant pauses, he would have written them (there are plenty elsewhere in the canon). I think the commas simply mean that in those parts, the players should shorten their last note to ensure that it does not carry over the bar line: thus there is a break in sound, but not in tempo.

Now, having got all that off my chest, I have to come to the nub of the matter – this performance was bloody brilliant. Despite every criticism I’ve made above, it was the most spine-tingling, life-affirming performance I’ve ever been to. It never flagged emotionally, as emotion is like an echo that can bridge the silence. OK, I have to admit that listening to the Abbado recording in total darkness has sometimes turned me into a blubbering wreck, but my natural reluctance to over-emote in a public place prevented any such embarrassment in the Royal Albert Hall.

All of which poses the question: if there was so much wrong, why was it so damned good? The answer is simple, if you think for a moment: if perfection were a necessary element of satisfaction, we would never be satisfied by anything. There is no such thing as a perfect musical performance; every time we attend a concert, we are simply hoping that tonight we might get just slightly closer to the ideal than we ever have before. Just imagine what would happen if we did experience a faultless performance? Why would we ever want to attend another concert ever again? What would there be left to strive for?

So I take my hat off to Gustavo Dudamel, because he, and his wonderful orchestra, realise that it is more important to strive to communicate than to strive for the ideal. They know that it is better to live for the moment than to worry about eternity. They understand that it is preferable to satisfy the emotional needs of the audience than to indulge in the pointless pursuit of perfection.


Posted by on 7 August 2011 in Music


3 responses to “The Pointless Pursuit of Perfection

  1. leboyfriend

    7 August 2011 at 09:48

    It is so rare for me to reach the end of a piece of critical writing and say to myself “I agree with all of that!” but that is what I found myself doing moments ago. You echoed so much that has passed through my mind over the last 36 hours. I listened to the live performance, listened to my recording of yesterday morning, and then watched on television last night. When the person I was watching with said “Oh! Bad note from the brass there!” I had to agree, but had to add “You can nit-pick this to death all night – but it is a passionate and committed performance and I”ll take that over one that is just technically perfect any day of the week!” Yes, there were mistakes – but, oh, the glorious sounds we were treated to between those mistakes. Clearly, Dudamel has a special relationship with this orchestra. It shows. Of all the functions of a conductor, perhaps (right after giving a clear beat) the most important is to inspire and make every performer give of their very best at every moment. I think Dudamel works his very hardest to achieve this. Rarely has ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ been such an appropriate aphorism.

  2. Andrew Taylor

    9 September 2011 at 11:45

    You’re absolutely spot on. As the conductor of an amateur orchestra (a description that includes myself), I sometimes get dispirited when hearing professionals play, because I think ‘I’ll/we’ll never be anywhere as good as that’. True enough on a technical level, but only in music of extreme difficulty will we ever not be able to match (or exceed) the emotional intensity of a piece. In fact, lots of people say they enjoy our performances because they feel more of a connection with us, and sense our passion and enjoyment.

    On a personal level, I’ve taught myself to enjoy music again over the past few years. Seems a strange thing to say, but I went through a period of being hyper-critical, much like the pretentious people who write sniffy reviews on sites like It takes a lot for me to not enjoy a concert these days. Doesn’t mean that some aren’t better than others, but my attitude is to try to enjoy them all and savour those which (often by surprise) really make me tingle.

    All the best,

    p.s. Mind if I point to this post on my own blog?

    • kingouf

      10 September 2011 at 17:28

      Feel free, Andrew.

      Mind you, I went to the BBC Symphony Orchestra prom three weeks later in which Semyon Bychkov conducted Mahler 6, and it was even better than the Dudaband! Only a few days later, I listened to the same orchestra playing Beethoven 9 as if they had never seen it before – shows what a difference a good conductor can make!

      I see you conduct the Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra, which means you must know the gorgeous Tania Lopez-Bran! Lucky you!


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