Every age has its own tastes, its own aesthetic lines drawn in the sand. Since the 19th century, with its seminal guardians of musical decorum (Clara Schumann chief among them), pianists and their critics have debated the role of stage persona. Most outspoken are those who believe that a quiet, undemonstrative approach to the instrument – à la Arthur Rubinstein – best reflects a serious commitment to earnest musicianship. The corollary is presumed true as well: that excessive body movement or facial expressions can cheapen an interpretation or betray a lack of real understanding. Pianist Lang Lang, often insensitively derided as “Bang Bang”, is held in this case to be Public Enemy Number One. Our current notion of good taste is less extreme, and concedes that a bit of visual display can be acceptable and even beneficial, so long as it is a natural byproduct of a performer’s interpretation.

This view is based on more than mere speculation, according to a study published in the journal PNAS this past summer. The study suggested that visual cues are in fact more important than aural ones in listeners’ evaluations of musical performances. Dr Chia-Jung Tsay, of University College London, found that out of three groups of participants – those shown silent videos, those shown videos with sound, and those played audio clips without video – only the viewers of silent video clips were able to correctly identify the winners of international music competitions. Even trained musicians who were subjects in the study conformed to this overall trend, yet many classical pianists still find themselves chastised for aspects of their stage deportment that are deemed to be excessive.

Why should it not be acceptable for body language to convey part of the overall musical meaning? After all, the seats in a concert hall do face the stage. (Good luck selling tickets for any that don’t!) Following this bias against the visual component to its logical conclusion, seats should face away from the stage, giving audience members an empty visual field in which to fully immerse themselves in sound only. Aside from the element of spontaneity, there is surely something else about live music that makes it worthwhile. However restrained or extroverted it may be, the character imparted visually by a performer on the music is part of this experience.

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The explosion of recorded music in the 20th century has helped shape today’s outlook on this matter. Many pianists recall the great artists of the past as having had bolder artistic personalities than today’s younger generation of players, who are viewed as somewhat polished and homogenized. While lack of inspiration may be one culprit, the streamlined sound of the present results at least as much from a practical matter: the ubiquity of recordings insures that any music lover attending a concert in recent decades has had the opportunity to familiarize herself quite well with almost any work being performed. Thus the same kind of exaggeration in sound is no longer as necessary as it was a century ago, when even well-informed concertgoers might only have had one fleeting opportunity to grasp the meaning of a piece. Since the same kinds of interpretive extremes would sound out of place today, many artists resort instead to visible displays of emotion. And given the highly visual nature of contemporary experience – how much time do most of us spend in front of a screen each day? – it makes a lot of sense for the uninitiated to be guided in their concert experience by visual aids.

While string players are occasionally brought in for the same kind of censure, pianists are virtually the only musicians held to such puritanical standards regarding stage presence. The eyebrows alone of any decent woodwind player are more demonstrative than a typical pianist’s entire body! And while conductors may need to exaggerate certain ideas for the orchestra to be inspired, I would argue that in most repertoire, a first-rate ensemble doesn’t need every gesture and grimace provided by many flashier maestros. Whether those of austere taste – to whose sometimes dour ranks I reluctantly assign myself – choose to acknowledge it or not, there is a theatrical aspect to any performance that the public not only enjoys, but finds indispensible. Seemingly excessive motions can draw a first-time listener’s ears to a key motive, or a transition that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Facial expressions are a defining feature even of performers who are dubbed “serious” or “introspective” players, such as Mitsuko Uchida and the young French pianist David Fray. Their often extreme visual displays are usually of the pained, tortured-artist variety, and the unquestioning acceptance of this suggests that certain emotions may be regarded as more sincere, or deeper, than others. Is it not possible for a performer to convey enjoyment, goofiness even, in both sight as well as sound? Listening to Lang Lang perform Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2, there is a brash sense of humor, a reveling in grotesquerie, so strongly heard that for him to sit still would actually seem unnatural.

Most likely it is a question of repertoire, and of which composers might or might not have approved of this kind of behavior. Surely Bach, who inscribed many of his works with the self-effacing SDG (for “Soli deo Gloria”, or “Glory to God alone”), would have scoffed at the effusive Mr Fray, whose Bach playing I find sensitive, idiomatic and cultivated. (And I’m not alone – his excellent 2009 recording of several Bach keyboard concertos earned him the German Recording Academy’s “Instrumentalist of the Year”.) One would infer, too, that among pianist-composers, a lighthearted approach to composition reveals a lack of serious intent in interpreting the works of others. Yet somehow light fare like Earl Wild’s Doo-Dah Variations for Piano and Orchestra (after Stephen Foster) earns genial smirks and outright praise, even in conservative circles.

Both the late Mr Wild and current artists such as Marc-André Hamelin are commonly referred to, reverentially, by the label “supervirtuoso”. The implication is that a virtuoso, who tends with the utmost seriousness to the precision of his craft, is engaged in a brand of artistry valid unto itself. Is it really worse for a pianist to aim for vivid characterization, and fail on grounds of perceived insincerity, than to seek no more than a mirthless, correct execution of the written score?

What about artists who turn the composer’s intention (however fallacious may be the very idea of a “composer’s intention”) upside down, and create something different but equally beautiful in the process? Is the result not in fact beautiful, but merely a deception? Ivo Pogorelich comes to mind as a pianist who plays with great license, but few would deny that his Gaspard de la nuit achieves something staggering, even if it may be something radically different than what Ravel had in mind. The difference is that while Mr Pogorelich’s ideas are extreme, they are usually delivered with poise and an air of eccentricity. For Lang Lang, the problem may not be the degree of distortion, but the nature of that distortion: apparent enjoyment is equated with self-indulgence, whereas seriousness bordering on suffering automatically signifies depth.

The admonition to place substance above style is not an unwise one, but when transformed into the dictum “avoid style at all costs”, it becomes a restrictive criterion for judgment. Yuja Wang, perhaps the most prominent young pianist making a career right now, has drawn (largely negative) attention for her fashion sensibility. Her short dresses and stilettos are viewed, like the excessive pantomiming of Lang Lang, as incompatible with serious artistry. (The double standard this reinforces along gender lines deserves an essay all its own...) While some find her playing too reliant on fast fingers, Ms Wang’s reading of certain repertoire has been repeatedly characterized as intelligent and refined. Reviewing her October 2011 Carnegie Hall recital in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini dismissed the furor over her attire. After noting that “for the second half she changed into a more revealing velvety dress, slit open at the side”, Mr Tommasini concluded: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it. What matters is that Ms Wang has got it as a pianist.” Substance over style indeed.

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