The Violinist, the Conductor, and My Question

I was not going to miss my chance this time at the pre-concert discussion, especially since I could think of an enlightening question and not ask any old thing such as “How many hours a day do you practice?” just to be a show-off. This was a New Jersey Symphony Orchestra discussion between the audience and the soloist Simone Porter and conductor Christoph König who would be presenting Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64. I asked, “When you perform, do you strive to keep the piece the same or do you play or conduct it differently each time?” (Notice how I got to have both personages respond.)

Maestro König answered, “When I go back to the same piece, I get more to its essence each time. I acquire deeper levels of understanding and so it stops being the same thing.”

Ms. Porter replied, “No, I do not play it the same at all, and I would not aim for that anyway because that would make me nervous. I change it to keep a piece fresh. And there are many factors that influence how I play it, like the venue, who else is playing it, how the audience is responding, and so on. I make so many decisions about what area to emphasize and what not to, and this can change even in the 24 hours between concerts.”

With those answers, I can boast that I asked a worthwhile question, right? The conductor’s answer is the antidote to boredom and taking things for granted. We could apply this wisdom to anything we repeat, such as rereading a novel, giving the same lecture to students at the beginning of every semester, observing a religious holiday, listening to an elderly person relating the same story for the umpteenth time, going to the same museum with the kids or a friend, and listening yet again to that Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto you know all so well.

Porter is telling us that she wants the freedom to grow with the piece, and not have the artificial restraint of making it the same. By changing it some, she is repeating it yet keeping it fresh. I did not make a connection between the views of the conductor and the violinist until writing about them this moment. I just realized that their answers represent two approaches to performing music, and maybe to engaging in other repetitious acts in our lives. The conductor is talking about a change within himself that makes the piece different for him, while the violinist is changing the piece itself by emphasizing certain aspects of it and de-emphasizing others.

The next time I go to a concert and hear the “same” piece, I look forward to applying both approaches to it, and growing in enjoyment and perhaps wisdom thereby.


Special note to my followers and “repeat” readers: I often write stories and essays about loss, but I feel after all these years I would rather, like Porter, emphasize other matters and de-emphasize those associated with death and grieving. You will also see a change in the subtitle of this blog, just look up at the top. Thus I aim to retain the offbeat compassion element but give myself more freedom as to where it may show up. Let me know what you think.