Despite raw talent, Andsnes and Bostridge lack that certain something

By Alexander Coppock

Ian Bostridge is a fantastic tenor and has found his equal in pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. Last Wednesday evening, the two offered Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, to all those present at Symphony Center. Each man has an exceedingly impressive résumé—and in all likelihood, a corresponding ego—but neither the specter of past accomplishments nor of pride marred the performance. Both seemed as involved in playing the piano as singing and equally invested as a performer and as a listener. Bostridge and Andsnes were quoted as saying that Wednesday evening’s performance of the 24 songs of Schubert’s winter journey was their best ever.

If you have the opportunity to hear either of them, you can be assured a quality showing. You can be assured that they are trustworthy musicians, that their interpretation stems from a depth of feeling which is palpably real, and that they believe in the music they create as if they had written it themselves. They perform together with the ease and grace of friends in a drawing room, all the while fully cognizant of the thousands of pairs of eyes and ears trained on them. They display a stunning mix of confidence and humility that makes for truly superb music making.

Everything was set in order, and I felt assured of a brilliant performance. The pieces are somber, and the musicians seemed prepared to honor that sobriety and darkness. But unfortunately, for music appreciation to take place, there must not only be good performers, but good listeners.

Often, a listener can fall into the trap of watching himself watching the concert—”Oh, isn’t it beautiful that I am here experiencing this beautiful thing!” It’s kind of like Kundera’s famous “second tear,” where the first falls for the children playing in the park, and the second falls for the parent who sees himself weeping. It is easy to love that we love, cry because we cry, or laugh when we laugh. This is meta-living which is probably some sort of alienation. In any case, a concertgoer should be wary of enjoying the fact that he is enjoying the concert.

At the CSO, I had the opposite problem: I was watching myself not be moved at all, and was not moved at all. I listened to myself listening, and didn’t hear music. Bostridge was onstage, wearing his heart on his sleeve, and in the balcony, I was blasé. It is paralyzing knowledge to know that you are paralyzed. I seemed to go round and round an anesthetic circle: I don’t feel anything about not feeling anything about not feeling anything

I walked away from the concert asking myself: Why do we go to concerts? What sort of fulfillment can we possibly draw from watching two young musicians perform ancient (by some standards) music? Why am I moved by music at all? These are stupid questions, without answers, rightfully relegated to the dim reaches of academia’s closet. These questions are for people who aren’t touched by music, as they morosely eye people who are.

I was not moved on Wednesday night, except once, by the very last song sung. I knew the piece, the hall was great, and the performers—as I just explained—were fabulous. I can’t put my finger on why I was just left with a feeling of “Oh, yeah…” Yes, indeed, those two were on top of their game, and Schubert was a master songwriter. (I had a music teacher who placed only Gershwin and the Beatles in his illustrious company.) Yes, indeed, those two were pouring out their souls at me. And yet

The piece is not exactly lacking in humanity—it is an excruciating hour and 15 minutes of pain, loss, and frost. The protagonist criss-crosses the countryside, unwanted, hungry and cold, desperate. He stumbles into a cemetery; not even death’s frozen earth will receive him. Why didn’t I get the chills? I want the chills!

The answer cannot be to know more. The answer cannot be that I am simply too ignorant to have appreciated the concert. And if Adorno wants to complain that there is no more taste, only listening habits, he can rot in his grave: I know and love Schubert, so buzz off.

It was like bad sex where nothing went wrong. Non-collective non-effervescence. A delicious, tasteless meal. Blank.

Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes did their jobs, and beautifully. They accomplished one of the most difficult tasks in performing: The reduction to zero of the distance between their souls and their music. Gone, the intellect. Gone, stage fright, jealousy, arrogance. Gone, all of the impediments to honest feeling to which so many talented performers fall victim.

I could blame my non-experience last Wednesday evening on over-thinking; something—without being overly self-congratulatory—I know to haunt the U of C undergraduate. I know enough to be scared of kitsch, but not enough to know what to do about it. If over-thinking isn’t my problem, then I am in for much more trouble than I (over)thought.

It might be gently suggested that I relax. “Calm down,” I can hear someone saying, “and let the music wash over you. Be calmed by your calm.” And to this I would respond: Kindly leave and listen to Kenny G. Art must be engaged from both sides, by the performer and the listener. That elusive moment of appreciation will flit by the passive listener like a bad metaphor by sleepy readers’ eyes. To those still actually listening: Please, Do Not Calm Down.

For those of you who have actually managed to make it to the end of this article, and are left thinking, “And so…?” I apologize, for I have always thought that a reviewer shouldn’t just give an account of the performance, but of his experience of it. If you were at the concert, you know what happened; if you weren’t, you don’t. I am much more interested in how one can listen to European Concert Music or Western Art Music, or—God forbid—classical music.

And if you don’t share my opinion—well, Bostridge and Andsnes just made a recording of Winterreise on EMI. You can enjoy it on your iPod.