Today many musicians feel it necessary to organize their programs around a theme. Themes can be programmatic (music of spring/summer…, war/peace, food, etc); they can focus on nationality and/or time-period (modern Polish music); a particular characteristic (Maurizio Pollini and the Juilliard Quartet once presented a program of nothing but very short pieces, including Webern’s Bagatelles and Chopin’s Preludes); a survey of a certain repertory (e.g. the complete Bartók string quartets); or actual musical themes (music based on “L’homme armé”). In fact almost anything can be made into a ‘theme.’ When all else fails, you can call a program “Music of Sorrow and Joy” (or “Lament and Celebration”—you get the idea). The theory is that a thematic title gives an audience additional food for thought, and perhaps offers cues of what to listen for; it may create a more active role for the normally passive listeners, or it may simply provide a catchy headline.
Everywhere around me leaving two great concerts at Tanglewood this week, the talk was of those phenoms of memory, Benjamin Bagby and Pieter Wispelwey. Mr. Bagby spoke, sang, and roared Beowulf, and Mr. Wispelwey played all six of Bach’s Cello suites. What is it about memory that engages people? Do they think they can’t do it themselves? They’re probably wrong about that. We are told that toddlers have a nearly photographic memory. The skill can be greatly enhanced with steady practice. Just ask a soap opera actor. Do we have so many machines that memory is becoming a slow information feed for us? Musicians and actors know in their minds and their bodies how second nature memory becomes when a great work is concentrated on. There is something else to it. I remember a great teacher saying when asked what artists do replying, “Artists remember in public.” The whole act of performing is one of memory or if I may make a word work for me, rememory. Rememory is not the same as memorization. The latter is a technique; the former a state of mind. Easy memorization skills can be limiting. Nothing about a performer’s work should be facile. Rememory is a state that leads the great work out of the performer’s imagination with some kind of a dependable flow which can be trusted.