A bunch of amateurs in classical music - and it's all the better for it


You don’t have to be a professional to make an impact in music – but you will have to practise like one

When is the last time you heard of a Chopin Ballade getting as much exposure as the First Ballade has from Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian? Rusbridger is an amateur pianist who, a couple of years ago, decided to try to master the Ballade, between dealing with Wikileaks revelations, the Libyan uprising, the Leveson Inquiry, and other intrusions from his day job. In Hugh Linehan’s interview with him in Saturday’s Irish Times, it sounds like a quixotic undertaking, snatching minutes in the early hours of the morning or using a lull in Tripoli to practise on a hotel piano.

Being a national newspaper editor with a known proclivity for classical music has its advantages, of course. Rusbridger was in a position to consult with artists who mightn’t readily open their doors to other amateurs. And his masterplan was serious. His goal was to end his quest with a performance before an actual audience, of family, friends, and colleagues.

The title of Rusbridger’s book is Play it Again, using the famous non-quotation from the film Casablanca to deliver the message that repetition is the road to perfection when its comes to the mastery of a musical instrument. I’ve never forgotten a passage from The Art of Piano Playing by Heinrich Neuhaus, the Russian pianist and teacher whose pupils included Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu. “When Sviatoslav Richter played me Prokofiev’s Ninth Sonata (dedicated to him) for the first time, I could not help noticing that one very difficult, polyphonic and very lively bit (in the third movement, some 10 bars, not more) came off particularly well. He said to me: ‘I practised this bit without interruption for two hours.’ ” Neuhaus’s conclusion? “This is the right method for it gives splendid results.”

Rusbridger’s conclusion, in a video on guardian.co.uk, is quite modest. “I’ve proved that I can sort of play it,” he says. “But that’s it.” He’s not the only amateur who’s taken performing ambitions beyond normal boundaries. Take Ernest Hall, a British businessman who led a consortium that turned one of the largest carpet factories in the world, the Dean Clough Mills in Halifax, into a thriving business and arts complex. Hall studied piano and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the late 1940s, before giving up music for business. But when he was in his 60s he returned to his first love, and made recordings of the piano concertos of Bartók and Lutoslawski. In his 70s, he recorded the gargantuan concerto by Busoni.

Virtual playing

At the other end of the scale there’s the work of Canadian lawyer John Lewis Grant, which I came across in the heady days when mp3.comwas trying to be a forum for independent musical voices. Grant’s big musical obsession was with Bach, and, dissatisfied with his piano-playing ability, he worked in the digital domain, using a MIDI interface to control a “virtual” piano.

The sampling was done on a Bösendorfer Imperial grand, and the fine-tuning of nuances and dynamics carried out on a computer. You can find his work at pianosociety.com, where he suggests that his performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier may be “the most listened to account of the Well-Tempered on the internet, with about one million downloads of individual preludes and fugues”. He obviously hasn’t checked out YouTube.

In all honesty, the big benefits of amateur performers are rarely for listeners or audiences, but rather for the players themselves. It was, I think, the pianist and scholar Charles Rosen who pointed out that the fullest and most balanced way of experiencing Bach’s keyboard music was not by listening to it, but by playing it. Musicians playing fugues for an audience typically go out of their way to emphasise the most important line in a tangle of counterpoint. It’s a kind of distorted musical didacticism that someone playing for themselves has no need of. When you’re in the middle of making all the sounds yourself, you don’t have to accentuate anything for anyone else’s benefit. You know what’s there without having to have it pointed out to you. It’s a bit like the difference between reading a book in your head, and reading it out loud.

Home sessions

Rusbridger laments the way recordings and radio have destroyed the kind of domestic music-making that used to be based around the piano in the living room. It still hangs on, however, and part of my youth was devoted to chamber-music sessions where music students mixed with builders, teachers, dentists, draughtsmen, architects and accountants and the odd music-hungry professional.

Amateur pianism appears to be on the up, and has even jumped on the competition bandwagon. The joint winners of Pianist magazine’s Amateur Piano Competition last August were Thomas Yu (a Canadian periodontist) and Robert Finley (a retired electronics engineer from Massachusetts). There’s now also a Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs and a Cliburn Amateur Piano Video Contest, and you can check out the growth in this kind of enterprise at amateurpianists.org.

Concerts involving amateur choirs outnumber those by professionals in any country you care to think of. And although amateur orchestras may perform only a handful of times a year, there are far more of them than there are professional orchestras. Czech emigré composer Karel Husa wrote his Music for Prague 1968 in response to the Soviet invasion of his native country. He wrote it for the kind of symphonic band you’ll find in schools across the US. By the time it came to be heard in Prague itself, in February 1990, it had received more than 7,000 performances around the world.

As long ago as the 1930s, Virgil Thomson estimated that in the US there were around 30,000 orchestras “connected with educational institutions and with the amateur musical life of neighbourhoods and of semirural communities”. And that was before the youth-orchestra movement took off in earnest. The most unusual amateur orchestra that I’ve come across is the Orchester der deutschen Kinderärzte (Orchestra of German Pediatricians), which very respectably recorded Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with the celebrated Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda.

Alan, you are not alone.

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