The imagination is indeed a perplexing faculty. On the one hand it suggests an intimate and silent realm of possibility; on the other it projects loudly our dreams and hopes, our needs and yearnings, our wishes and wants in public activity. One such activity is musical performance and a more specialised kind of such performance is the performance of so-called “serious-music”. The Violin Concerto by Beethoven will fall into this category for anyone who cares about such a label. However, more intriguing than applying a label of “seriousness” to music is the question what possibilities Beethoven’s work might afford the imagination today.
A recent concert experience provided striking opportunity to reflect on just this question. Here is the setting: A gala performance– garlands of purple flowers framing the stage to provide a setting of perfumed expectancy. The musicians of the orchestra already on stage seem disciplined and alert; dimming lights, concentrated tuning. Conductor and soloist enter to excited and voluptuous applause. Both are major performers of international standing but the contrast could not be more striking: Small statue, grey hair, impish walk- the conductor appears boyish, excited and eager to share the secrets of music. The violinist in yellow mermaid dress enters like a princess, gracing all with her presence. The production is perfect: dress-matching shoes, immaculately styled hair, radiating and gracious smile – a suggestion of eternal youth, of mythical beauty, of a goodness that suggests redemption.
The entrance is electrified by expectation. The performance had already begun months ago with a carefully planned campaign in glossy media where patrons and public were prepared to witness a phenomenon, to hear a superstar otherwise only encountered in film or sport. Those who are here tonight had heard the tale of legendary fame, of a life which transcended ordinary tragedy and extraordinary promise, of an eternally youthful giftedness and of a dedication to others through charity work and the promotion of young artists. Is this merely a musician or is this someone who may respond to our dreams of eternal youth, of combining beauty, truth and compassion, a creature of all-encompassing goodness?
The entrance suggests a magical aura. It hints at a fulfilment of the quest for eternal youth. It hints at relief from the eternal disappointment of transience. It hints at redemption from a daily struggle with goodness and truth in an ordinary, dreary and frustrated life. Here comes a specimen of perfection, invited by the audience’s imagination, by its desires, dreams and disappointments. With the first sounds of her violin, this artist will need to respond to a call of an imagination and of a yearning that reaches beyond Beethoven into the abyss of modern life. How this artist performs in this dimension will define her art!
The orchestra starts the extended tutti with concentrated care. There is attention and control of tempo- a reticence to become assertive and exuberant notwithstanding that the music may call for this. From her first entry with its ascending dominant seventh arpeggio the violinist commands our attention with a sound of striking modality, aided by intense vibrato, lascivious glissandi and seductive contrasts exposing breathtaking colour, beauty and tone. This is a sound-show to spectacular effect and with compelling colour. Unusual rubato, sudden effects with striking seduction in sound, some sharpness in pitch at times cuts into the listener’s attention – no device is spared to tantalise our attention. It becomes increasingly clear why the orchestra was careful: It did not recognise that it was in fact part of a different kind of performance and that this performer could harness the dreams of an audience more powerfully than any music. It is no longer a question of simply performing a work of music and revealing its existence. The yellow-golden violinist has lured all towards a different kind of realm. Here, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto becomes merely an opportunity to incite the fundamental desires and yearnings accumulated in the everyday. There is myth-making at work here.
The performance unfolds with irresistible authority and wilful imagination. It directs the attention of the listener towards the musician on stage and confronts him with a hidden, amplifying consciousness. Did he come to hear Beethoven’s Violin Concerto? This hardly seems relevant for this performance is about the listeners’ hidden dreams, their yearnings and their unfulfilled desires, their everyday frustration and their despair at the ever receding amount of life seeping away through mundane, everyday activity. The soloist brings redemption, a brief sojourn of hope and a promise that dreams can become real, that myth may be true and that youth can be ever-lasting if only we follow our imagination.
At the end of the performance the gratitude of the audience at this celebration of semblance knows no bounds. Here is an artist who knows that ordinary listeners come to concerts not merely to hear the music: they come with a need for catharsis, to gain redemption from their quiet despair. And the imagination must be complete, the needs fulfilled to temporary satisfaction. The mermaid conjured up the mythical and intoxicating forces of redemption with her violin. Where these forces of Beethoven’s imagination? It hardly matters for the forces of the listeners’ imagination and its desires were stronger. They were inflamed and fulfilled. The power of the mermaid closes our consciousness – she does not question it nor does she free us from it. She seduces and satisfies, perhaps, but she leaves behind a greater dependency. Should this be the purpose of music and music making? Should Beethoven’s Violin Concerto become the vehicle of seduction, of narcissistic wish fulfilment? These are academic questions. They are in any case entirely dependent on accepting my description in the first instance. And there is no way one can argue the point against an essentially irresistible imagination. Putting the question will inevitably ricochêt an answer. “Muss es sein?- Es muss sein!” – Beethoven knew this and so did Walt Disney. But Beethoven extracted the answer from our imagination to enhance our freedom and autonomy of consciousness while Disney buried it into our imagination and thus continued to commit us to an enhanced dominance of desire. The latter is no real catharsis - for the mermaid masquerading as a mother of redemption is little more than a beautiful reflection of dreams which ultimately entomb us in the cellars of our own consciousness.