Sunday, August 3, 2008

Art Isn't Easy

Many people take a product-based approach toward art. Is it something they can purchase? Will it accumulate in value over time? If they buy more expensive seats will they have a better artistic experience? For many consumers, collecting art (whether in the form of paintings, sculptures, CDs, or DVDs) becomes a life-long pursuit.

However, for the people who actually create the art, process always trumps product. The artistic process involves constantly searching to hone and refine one's craft, improve one's performance, build trust in one's instinct and add greater depth to one's interpretation. I remember once sitting in on a rehearsal of Richard Strauss's Salome that was not going smoothly. At a designated break, the soprano singing the title role slumped down in a chair and muttered "Jesus Christ! I'm gonna have to earn every fucking cent of this fee!"

For hundreds of years artists and craftspeople have shared their secrets with younger generations who will eventually replace them. For some, the knowledge of how to perfect or refine their art comes too late in life -- at a time when the body can no longer produce the desired results. This is an especially poignant catch-22 for singers and dancers whose bodies pass their prime long before the brain starts to diminish in strength.

There's an old saying that "Those who can't do, teach." But learning about art is not the same thing as teaching art. Many performing artists conduct master classes in the cities in which they perform throughout the concert season. Most of the master classes held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music are not only open to the public, but are free.

Conducted by world-renowned artists such as Stephen Hough and Peter Frankl, these classes are a joy to attend. During such sessions one witnesses veterans coaxing new sounds and stronger interpretations from younger artists. One also benefits from the sharing of knowledge accumulated throughout a lifetime of performing around the world. Occasionally one gets to watch someone with a natural teaching talent who can communicate, tersely and gracefully, the changes he would like to see effected.

One of the common goals of a master class is to help young musicians understand how to interpret a musical score. While the instructor may add valuable historical perspectives about the composer, the instrument, and the era in which the piece was created, much of the focus is on improving the young artist's musical sensitivity and basic technique. Watch this 10-minute video of pianist Maria Joao Pires teaching a master class and you will be fascinated by what you see. Rather than the formal body language seen in most symphonic concerts, she is trying to encourage students to loosen up their bodies so that they can learn how to breathe with the music as they play it. As is often the case, this master class is a multilingual affair.

While teaching students how to play an instrument such as a piano or cello involves the use of an inanimate third object, for singers and dancers the instrument in question is their own body. A lifetime of learning -- and paying careful attention to how the body works -- goes into transmitting tips and tricks to young artists that can help them overcome performance obstacles. Here are two legendary opera singers -- soprano Birgit Nilsson and tenor Alfredo Kraus --working with young singers to help them improve their technique.

Notice that the language used by the instructors will vary from moment to moment and may sometimes simply consist of grunts and gestures aimed at showing a young artist how to produce a particular sound.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival recently screened Tomer Heymann's fascinating dance documentary, Out of Focus, which examines the work of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin who, from 1990 to 2003, served as Artistic Director of the Batsheva Dance Company (which was founded in 1964 by Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva De Rothschild). Although Naharin is at first a reluctant inteviewee, Heymann places him in the dance studio where the choreographer can be seen working with dancers as well as criticizing them from the sidelines while being interviewed. This technique offers a much different insight into a choreographer's instinct than most dance films.

Naharin's style of dance, which he refers to as "Gaga," is less formal than ballet. Throughout the film the audience witnesses him coax his dancers to find new interpretive strengths in their movement. The vocabulary he uses to communicate with his dancers is fascinating, especially when he tries to ask them to incorporate the sensation of a hiccup into the excitement they are trying to create. Describing his work for the Village Voice, Deborah Jowitt once wrote "If you could hold one of Ohad Naharin's dances in your hand, it would feel smooth. Think of a polished stone. It looks like a piece of secret sculpture, but hurl it and it becomes a weapon."

At 55, and with constant back pain from an old injury, Naharin surprises the interviewer with his lack of jealousy. The only thing he envies about the younger dancers is that they are not in pain, he insists. He's much more interested in helping his dancers push through boundaries and break free of restrictions, whether physical or interpretive. If anything, this film reminds viewers what America's children are missing as a result of the cutbacks in arts education in secondary schools. Naharin certainly employs a very different style of coaching or teaching than one finds in contact sports.

A most rewarding documentary, Out of Focus will easily be appreciated by anyone with an interest in the performing arts. What one sees is very different from a regular dance performance. The screen is filled with artists stretching, searching, and struggling to refine their craft. Sometimes Naharin's challenges take his dancers by surprise. In one instance, he asks them to squat above their partners' faces so that they are positioned an inch above the partner's nose. "You should be able to smell....." he cautions them, with a sense of impish glee.

If you want to watch great artists teaching, there are plenty of snippets of master classes available on YouTube. If you have two hours to spare, go for the best: watch this two-hour master class in the art of interpreting song conducted by the legendary Barbara Cook. It's a fascinating teaching experience filled with lungs, love and laughter.

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