One of the things my ballet teacher taught me was that everything – everything – should look effortless, regardless of how much work you were doing or how difficult the steps might be. We were never to be like the tightrope walker who sets out to make you gasp at the danger and the risk.
Two concerts last week reminded me of this.
From the program book of a set of piano recitals: Joyce Yang commenting on how “the hardest thing with Chopin is to make it as effortless as possible”; Bernd Glemser said something similar (not quoted) in his conversation. Whereas the more dazzling of Liszt’s pyrotechnics might occasionally seem calculated to elicit oohs and aahs from an audience, there’s none of that in mature Chopin. Even the most brilliant and powerful moments must seem easy and effortless to the listener, with no edge-of-the-seat anxiety or fear of missed notes. And Joyce Yang is right, it’s probably one of the hardest things with Chopin.
My ballet teacher was talking to 10 year olds. The more complicated truth is that sometimes choreographers quite deliberately set up a “tightrope walker” effect. You get it in the famous 32 fouetté pirouettes in Swan Lake and the nail-biting Rose Adagio in Sleeping Beauty – spinning and balancing acts respectively. Of course the dancer still strives for effortlessness and grace but, all the same, you are meant to sit there, holding your breath, and be utterly impressed.Ravel does this in the opening of his G major piano concerto, which offers some kind of fiendish difficulty to just about everybody, beginning with the piccolo. When you listen to Ravel himself conduct the first movement (a whole minute quicker than anybody else – eek!), it’s hair-raising. And after hearing it again in concert this week I’ve come to the conclusion that this is precisely the effect he wants: to make it sound like everyone’s hanging in there by the skin of their teeth, even when the execution is perfect. Just another reason why this concerto makes me think of circuses.