Thursday, July 18, 2013

Listening to musical experts tell me what's wrong with Jackie Evancho

re: "talking down to professionals"

My professional expertise is not music, but writing & editing and associated stuff. And I've seen my share of people who confused basic literacy with any kind of real expertise. But I've also seen many professionals in my field of expertise who had all the requisite credentials yet who were unable to write things others would wish to read.

I've no doubt this is true in music as well. For example, the church I attend has two recording-quality organists who are members of the congregation (benefit of living in the college town of a prestigious university). One isn't quite as technically accurate as the other but plays with more heart, and I prefer to listen to him play.

What's "heart?" I'm not an expert at this, so I may not have the language to describe it, but we all know the difference between the sheet music and the performance--even when the sheet music is exquisitely detailed as to the composer's intentions.,

I don't want to talk down to professionals but sometimes it's called for when the pros in question go outside their mandate, or use what my wife's religion calls "unrighteous dominion." Or when they become like the distinction I heard made between music lovers and audiophiles: music lovers listen to the music; audiophiles listen to the flaws.

I played some of Jackie Evancho's music for the two professional musicians I referred to above. One was awed. The other only heard the flaws. Both are themselves expert performers, though neither is a singer. But I think the difference is applicable.

One understood why grown people weep when they hear her sing. The other did not. I'm not saying he should have wept. Neither did, in fact. But as a proficient musician he should have understood why so many weep, and he did not grasp that.

That is the problem with professional expertise. It can help some with natural gifts hone them tremendously. But it can also help someone without those natural gifts gain enough technical expertise to get into a position of power over others--performers and even paying customers--but without the whatever-it-is some are born with, others not.

It's what the move Amadeus was about. I'm not saying it maps exactly to Mozart's life. But it does talk about this difference admirably. The Salieri of the movie had all the right credentials, and was a pretty good performer...but Mozart had the real thing.

And when an expert reveals himself or herself to be a Salieri (again, the Salieri of the movie), they make themselves vulnerable to criticism, despite their expertise.

When it comes to singing, as a very amateur singer (bass chorus for Carmina Burana at UCLA and Stanford's community chorus), who can't finish a verse of a familiar hymn without dropping down one full step usually if I try to sing acapella, I can hardly claim personal expertise--just enough to kind of understand what the pros mean when they talk about portamento, passagio, vibrato, phrasing, tone, pitch, breath control, and other aspects of the singer's art.

But like many music lovers I've been listening closely to a wide variety of music for many decades. Just as we listeners should attend to what music professionals opine about, the pros should listen to the music lovers closely as well. In part because we pay their bills ultimately. But more importantly because a lot of careful listening confers its own expertise.

With Jackie Evancho I'm certainly aware of her technical imperfections. For example, while singing the National Anthem on the Capitol Fourth a few weeks ago she snuck in an extra inhalation just before the high note at the end. She won't do that as an adult, I'm sure.

I also understand the limitations of the light classics--currently called Classical Crossover--that she now specializes in performing. As I've said elsewhere, I don't normally listen to CC or light classics. I don't dislkie the genre but I listen to music to be thrilled, not anesthetized.

However, I do find Jackie Evancho's performances thrilling. I also love the singing of many others in other genres, so it's not like I only listen to Ms. Evancho. Singing and instruments too. Recently I spent hours getting myself acquainted with obscure (to most Westerners) guitarlike instruments such as the theorbo and the guitarra Portuguesa, for example. And a while earlier, listening to dozens of renditions of the prelude to Bach's first cello suite (Jann Wenn-Sing was my pick BTW), on modern and baroque cellos (plus the violincello da spalla), and the string bass too.

So I listen to Ms. Evancho in a very broad context, and I hope that as she grows her musical horizons will expand.

That said, I'd be impressed if any of the voice experts opining about Ms. Evancho had any theories as to why grown men and women weep when Jackie Evancho sings, when few other singers--even very good ones--have that effect.