Back in 1993, I founded an adult Orff performing group called Xephyr. We were all Orff teachers who decided that the Orff ideal of elemental movement and music was too good to be used only with children and the six of us met every Thursday night to improvise our way into group pieces. We performed at various Orff Conferences and in rented halls and churches in the Bay Area and prided ourselves not only on performance, but audience participation Orff-workshop style in the second half of the show. We kept at it until 2000 or so and occasionally hit on genuinely engaging and well-executed pieces in our performance repertoire.
But once I went to a concert of one of Keith Terry’s groups that had a similar aesthetic and my colleague and fellow Xephyr member James Harding turned to me at the end and said in his characteristically humorous style, “Oh yeah. We forgot virtuosity.” Not that we were rank amateurs as musicians and dancers, but that whether by innate talent or all the needed practice time spent teaching children, we were far from virtuosic in our skill level. And that’s why no one reading this ever heard of Xephyr. J
I still base my gift as an Orff teacher on the elemental ideal of getting the maximum musical effect from simple (but not simplified) ideas and pieces. More Erik Satie than Liszt, more Jean Ritchie than Bobby McFerrin. Or to be right on the mark, more Orff than Schoenberg. Elemental, simple, clear, close to the root of things, as we must be teaching 3-year olds.
But let’s face it. Every art form demands and rejoices and delights in virtuosity. From Ravi Shankar to Zakir Hussein to Art Tatum to Vladamir Horowitz to Mustapha Teddy Ade to Glen Velez to…well, the list is long. And it should include Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Chucho Valdez and Michel Camilo, the three pianists I had the supreme pleasure of hearing tonight at SF Jazz. The pyrotechnics were like the 4th of July on steroids, multiplied times two in the duets and three in the trios. Rhythmically, harmonically and melodically, each was playing light years beyond the accomplishment of 99% of the world’s piano players. But that’s not all.
Apparently, the old definition of virtuoso was simply an “accomplished master musician.” But in the Romantic Era, spurred on by showmen like Liszt and Paganini, it came to be associated with dazzling technical skill in and of itself. Instead of the player being transparent to the music, an intermediary medium through which the music played itself, the show became more focused on the musician and style overshadowed substance. Jazz pianist Art Tatum was sometimes accused of “playing too many notes,” filling in every moment of silence with his breakneck runs just because he could. Count Basie, on the other hand, would enjoy the silence and place a single note in just the right place at the right time and get a fabulous musical effect.
I remember Wynton Marsalis once saying something to the effect of “Technical accomplishment is the guard at the gate. You can’t get through the door without it, but it won’t carry you all the way down the road all by itself.” I agree. Tonight, Gonzalo Rubalcaba played a simple piece and resisted all fancy elaboration, letting each note ring out fully into the silence and the effect was profound. The true virtuoso knows when to withhold. But they also have to be prepared to let fly and have put in the tens of thousands of hours to accomplish that.
Back to the woodshed for me.