I was listening to the Smiley & West podcast this week. They interviewed the amazing Audra McDonald and spoke about the controversial new adaptation of Porgy and Bess that is currently on Broadway. The naturally mentioned Sondheim’s vehement reaction (which you can read here.)
They also played a little clip of some of the rewritten music – which sounded perfectly awful – and it put me in mind of many of the other adaptations and re-interpretations that Porgy and Bess has spawned. I had a particularly bad reaction to the little clip that I heard, but I’ve always been fond of the Ella and Louis versions of songs from the show. I love the Miles Davis and Gil Evans versions. There are countless other versions. It’s a testimony to the structural sturdiness of Gershwin’s writing. It can handle a tremendous amounts of tectonic shifting without collapsing.
I think Sondheim has some of this right. Part of the offensiveness of this particular Porgy and Bess is not that it is a new interpretation, but that it is called “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” when it is clearly not that.
I was playing for a particularly well known conductor once, and he openly told the group that he viewed music as “a vehicle to express his own personal emotions”. This attitude gave him tremendous freedom and latitude to change what the composer wrote in the score in order to better express himself. So, how far can you go? He felt free to change tempos and dynamics. I’ve known some conductors that make changes to voicings and even the endings of pieces. What percentage of a work has to be altered before it becomes a completely new work?
With my own work, I’ve heard ensembles perform things in ways that were very different than I had conceived them. Often, I like it. I like that the works can handle a diversity of interpretations. It’s the structural sturdiness thing again. One time, however, an ensemble sent me a recording of a fast piece. They had taken a tempo that was about 50% slower than I had indicated. It changed the piece into a radically different work.
The times when I have been most offended have been when a work that I love was “reinterpreted” by someone that truly shouldn’t have been doing it. A choreographer I used to work with made a vocal arrangement of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and felt free to change the structure of the piece. I clearly remember thinking, “Who do you think you are? Why do you feel so free to claim that you know how the music should go better than Copland did?”
I’m not sure the choreographer was even thinking in those terms, but it clarified the issue for me. I can handle Miles reworking Gershwin because I respect his musical ability, and I know that he respects the tradition. I can handle Ella and Louis because when they perform, the focus is not on some self-aggrandizing claim of improving the score and the story. In other words, I trust them.
This is particularly important because I’ve also had the experience of someone doing something that I thought was harming the work only to find out later that their "new" conception was actually better than my own. I learned to walk in a deeper and more patient trust with them afterward.
It is always difficult to name the precise thing that a conductor or director does that convinces me that the performance is more about his/her own reputation than it is about the music. I know it when it happens, and when it does, even their “traditional” interpretations of a piece seem less satisfying. I still play the notes like a professional, but I don’t give myself over to them in the same way. I don’t trust them to be any more respectful with my emotions than they are with the tradition.