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January 18, 2013

At a recent concert I heard the marvelous guitarist Jerome Ducharme play Variations and Fugue on Folies d’Espagne by the Mexican composer M.M.Ponce. It was a meticulously organized and captivating performance and I was impressed by the detailed planning that went into his reading of the work. Afterwards, as we were discussing it he admitted that not everything came out as he wanted. To some extent it never does – that’s why we keep practicing.

“Sometimes I need to play a phrase fifty times before I discover how it wants to be played,” Manuel Barrueco explained this to us in a Toronto Master Class in the winter of 1979. It is a remarkable statement, most obviously because he can play anything easily: so he is not talking about the physical aspect of playing. Nor is he talking about the act of imagining the music – it is a probing question that implies the further questions: “why is that phrase there, and how does it affect the preceding and succeeding phrases?’  It also suggests an intimate examination of speed, timbre, volume and articulation and how each will best convey the meaning in context. His exceptional skill set requires a formidable amount of detail and control.

We also see the musician acting as a vehicle for the music, asking questions to allow it to flow through him. The music dictates how IT wants to go.The music plays us. We give over to let it take us for a ride. Great texts of all kinds do this – it is easy to imagine a great actor trying a Shakespeare soliloquy in many ways and also being “taken away” by the text’s power. It is useful to think of this in contrast to the romantic ideal of interpretation where the performer places his own stamp on the music, carving his own pathways through a piece. I think the interpretive goal is to liberate the music, to let it cascade like a river.

Ducharme later characterized Barrueco’s sound as having the power of a laser beam. The power is not in strength but in his finely honed ability to find the “right sound”, encompassing many musical parameters.  This reminds me of a conversation I heard with the great jazz bass player Ray Brown. When describing the meaning of skill and experience  he told the interviewer: “ I can end a phrase in 5,00 ways. A younger player might be able to do 500.” He went on to suggest that while ability to play faster/slower might be comparable and the choice of notes similar, it was this sense of choice that made a big difference – he could follow a singer and meld his phrase endings to hers with much more nuance. Skill is about choice and flexibility.

Nasrudin complained to the doctor about the size of his bill.
”But, Mulla,” said the doctor, ”You must remember that I made eleven visits to your home for you.”
”YES,” said Nasrudin, ”but you seem to be forgetting that i infected the whole Neighbourhood.”

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