When the excellent becomes the enemy of everything

While doing some research on the New Hampshire Music Festival situation, I came across a blog post by Henry Fogel that I found both interesting on its merits and quite relevant to what’s been going on at the NHMF.

Back in May on his blog on the ArtsJournal site, Henry wrote about becoming Festival Director for the NHMF:

David Graham, the imaginative and courageous president of the festival, shares some of my feelings on this topic, and having read about them in this blog he began a relationship with me that has resulted in this exciting position. As we talked over the past year, David and I realized that we shared a deep passion for the musical experience as something transcendent, something so thrilling that one didn’t walk out of a concert and immediately go to a post-concert party with a dance band playing, because the experience you had just had wouldn’t let you do that…

We both believed that, with some obvious exceptions, the majority of concerts that we had been a part of were fine concerts. And we both believed that fine was a terrible word for describing a concert. A really good performance of anything should shake you to your roots. If it is a light classical work, you should almost not be able to resist getting up and dancing or singing. If it is a late Shostakovich symphony, you should be emotionally shaken to your core. Every performance should be a performance that matters–a performance that brings a specific, deeply felt interpretive point of view from the performers. Just rendering the notes on the page is not, in fact, making music.

This sounds pretty anodyne. But the more I thought about it, the more problematic it seemed. And I came to realize that Henry had fallen into Voltaire’s classic trap of making the excellent the enemy of the good – or perhaps even the enemy of the possible.

Is “fine” a “terrible word for describing a concert”? Do all concerts need to be “transcendent”? What happens when we make transcendent excellence the standard, not of aspiration, but of acceptability?

It’s not a standard that normal people apply to most things in their lives, after all. “Fine” is not a terrible word to describe a working relationship, or even a marriage. “Quite good” is not a damning criticism of a movie. “I had fun” is not a slam at a baseball game. “The best ever” is not a criterion most people use to decide whether or not they’ll go to a fireworks display on the Fourth of July.

There are two reasons why this is not only OK, but actually the way things have to be. First of all, people’s expectations are rarely that high for any experience – and, when they are, the experience invariably falls way short of the expectations.

I don’t go to a baseball game expecting to see Sandy Koufax face Willy Mays with the pennant on the line. I go expecting to see professional athletes perform at a very high level, and that’s what usually happens. I also expect to have fun with my son, down a good bratwurst or two, and generally enjoy the outing. Every so often I get to see a really great game, or a really amazing play, or a really exciting at-bat. But that’s a bonus. I go because I like to watch baseball, not because I expect to see something that fans will be talking about for years.

I don’t go to a movie expecting to have the same experience I had the first time I saw “2001.” I don’t step outside to watch the local country club’s fireworks with the expectation that I’ll see anything much different than I saw last year. I don’t talk to my friends expecting that profound conversations will happen.

Do most our audiences really expect to hear one of the greatest performances of their lives every time they come to hear us? I think they’re smarter than that. Obviously they don’t come to be bored, or annoyed at imprecision, or wondering why we’re not trying very hard. But I don’t think they expect magic every night.

If I think of the times I’ve experienced that in the concert hall, on either side of the edge of the stage, I come up with a pretty small number of concerts – and often very small parts of those concerts. I heard Alfred Brendel create magic in K. 595 with the Berlin Phil in Carnegie a few years ago, but what I remember was how he played the the first eight bars of the slow movement. That was transcendent; the rest of piece either set that up or flowed from that. And I would have enjoyed the concert, and been glad I’d gone, if that hadn’t happened.

There are two dangers in setting up transcendental excellence as the standard of measuring success. The first is that it’s unachievable on a regular basis. It thus defines the basis for a rich musical culture – lots of concerts and lots of performers – as failing most of the time. If we tell people that only the very, very best performances are worth attending, pretty soon we won’t have any performances – or performers – at all.

The second problem is that such a standard can justify almost any kind of change. If the status quo fails almost all of the time, then of course we have to try something different – and almost anything is likely to be an improvement. After all, failing is failing, right? Let’s try something different; at worst, it can only fail. And we know the status quo does that, don’t we?

That, I believe, is why making transcendental excellence a standard of acceptability, rather than simply an aspiration, is dangerous. And that is why it’s so relevant to what’s happening with the NHMF.

I have no doubt most of the Festival’s concerts fail to reach the exalted heights to which Henry aims. I have no doubt that most of my orchestra’s concerts fail in the same way, as no doubt did most of the Chicago Symphony’s concerts during Henry’s tenure. I suspect that’s even true of most of the concerts by The Knights, a group that Henry has held up as a model of exciting music-making.

Replacing half the Festival orchestra with 20 other musicians is not going to fix that.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.


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  • I have read blogs by Mr. Fogel in the recent past that clearly contraddict what he has been telling the NHMF board, classifying him an opportunistic charlatan who will say anything for a price.
    NH is not Lake Wobegon where everytning is above average.
    Applying Mr. Fogel criterion to his writings, I do not feel transported as if I was reading Shakespeare, nor even a Pulizer Price author. In order to be consistent, Mr. Fogel should stop writing literary substandard material.

  • Having had the honor, prvilege and absolute pleasure of being a member of the Hew Hampshire Music Festival’s French horn section since 1981, I can say, without a doubt, that NHMF is a world-class orchestra comprised of musicians have invested years of their professional careers in bringing the joy of classical music to the citizens of New Hampshire and surrounding New England states. Bringing in a “new model” and throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a crime of epic proportion.

  • Peggy,

    You wondered what concert Henry Fogel had heard? The answer is he NEVER heard us play, and more importantly he never heard OF us. As a member of the NHMF orchestra since 1983 I believe that most of the NHMF musicians past and present will tell you that it is one of the better orchestras they have played in in their careers. The product we produced was NEVER an issue. The musicians have always had a great working relationship. There were problems with the festival, naturally, but the quality of the product produced was never one of them.

  • I sang in most NHMF choruses since moving to NH in 1999. With just a few Monday nights to rehearse, I was usually pleased, certainly satisfied, with our performances. When I read Henry Fogel’s blog about the musicians “just rendering notes on the page” I wondered what concert he had heard. More important was the community both the choir and the orchestra created through the years, long before I arrived. The destruction of that is not mentionned by Robert Levine but it is a clear result of Henry Fogel’s and David Graham’s decisions to have us in rapture every week of the festival. Many of us are both hurting and angry at the loss of the NH Music Festival magic described by Peggy Johnson.

  • This draws us to a simple truth: we have to be prepared at all times – “in the midst of the busy kitchen,” say, to be met by mystery, to recognize and celebrate it.

    It is not enough, and it is hubris, to expect – or to try to institutionalize or orchestrate – mystery all day, every day – perfect diamonds, peak sex, top salary, no stress, no black flies in a perfectly groomed and temperate landscape – or to declare all else unacceptable.

    We are mortals, touched by majesty sometimes, when we allow it to happen. We have to show up ready to provide peak attention, skills honed, eyes open, and simply ready, ready for work, ready for magic to happen – because it might – and that IS what the Festival allowed, what Tom Nee cultivated and tended, what kept lively, engaged, and productive musicians gathering with each other year after year, what made the magic happen so often.

    From an audience member and sometime participant, it was as good as it can get; it was sublime.

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