I just came home from attending a concert given by a collaborative pianist of mine. Given that this week has been revolving around some bizarre little theme, it only now struck me what that theme might be.
During the Monday masterclass, Roger Vignoles often asked the accompanists to stand as he took his turn at the piano to demonstrate a point or another. Aside from recalling what Leon Fleisher had to say about how focal dystonia (and the resulting inability to play as demonstration) affected his teaching, it also was the seed for my current thoughts on how to balance volumes and what forte and piano mean, practically.
Hearing Vignoles accompany, I was struck by how strongly voiced the lines he wanted to highlight were. If one paid attention, they were played at a considerable dynamic. However, every other texture was made to be incredibly transparent and light, almost as if in compensation.
Except it's not in compensation for anything. One wants to hear what is important, and one wants to hear it clearly. This is the reason why beautifully articulated scales at a slower absolute tempo sound "faster" than slurred scales at a faster absolute tempo. It's because without clarity, sound becomes just that, disorganized sound. So a low rumble is more distracting than a clear melody with very light accompaniment texture.
Which reminded me eeeerily of a piano masterclass I had with Jose Feghali when I was a wee lad. As he put it (and as I remember it, which might be totally apocryphal at this distance), there is very little between a melodic p and melodic f when playing in a hall. The dynamic contrast comes from the volume of everything else and the texture. (A muddy texture will always sound louder than a transparent one.)
So the diva route could perhaps be to think "well, damn -- volume isn't my problem; it's all under the pianists control! play softer!" but I think that also misses the point about texture. A voix mixte production of similar volume to a tone that has more "core" will sound softer. And in a way it is. The texture is softer. chinchilla vs. cotton!
But another thing that both Feghali and Vignoles seemed to be getting at, at least indirectly, and what my experiences have been listening to student singers (and why I'm graaateful to be studying with whom I'm studying) is that they've been seeking clarity of meaning, which goes hand in hand with a clarity of text.
Vignoles wanted more clarity of line from both the accompanists and vocalists -- less so on the diction. But I also found that to be sometimes in need of some help. This bit of writing from the marvelous Ira Siff published in Opera News comes to mind:
Another benefit of Doria's [forward] placement is abundantly clear diction. This is a most attractive component of her performances of French song. The two-CD set Melodies Francaises (Malibran-Music CDRG 101) offers an artist who approaches this genre without artifice, bent on pure communication of the text. Doria began her career as a recitalist and maintained an interest in song literature into her seventies, when she made her final recordings. The keys chosen for the fifty-nine songs, recorded (with one exception) in 1953, do not give Doria's high instrument the consistent opportunity to make certain vocal effects that we have come to associate with this idiom -- floated pianissimos in particular. Such a tessitura would have impeded clarity of diction. Instead, we discover an interpreter never tempted by preciousness, who delivers the poetry with an emphasis at least equal to the one she affords the melody, capable of ravishing effects, incapable of affectation.
So my driving search is for clarity. For now and into the future.
sidenote: I'm pissed that I totally missed out on a Meredith Monk seminar that was little, if at all, advertised. GAH! But bonus stuff re Leon Fleisher!
Youtube snippet of behind-the-scenes filming of the documentary Two Hands:
An interview with Leon Fleisher when he visited the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, followed by a performance of Bach's And Sheep May Safely Graze arranged by Egon Petri.