Rhinegold

Toby Deller

You can’t win a performance, so why don’t more musicians play as if they have nothing to lose?

9:00, 17th May 2016

Four months into the year and the classical music world has already had to mourn several inspirational figures. The deaths of, among others, Pierre Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sir George Martin, David Bowie and Johan Cruyff have all given us cause for reflection.

Johan Cruyff? The Dutch footballer of the 1970s, the virtuoso centre forward at the heart of so-called ‘total football’ who, according to David Winner’s obituary in the Guardian, ‘prized creativity over negativity, beauty, originality and attack over boring defending’? What’s he got to do with classical music?

According to Simon Kuper in the Financial Times, ‘Cruyff was centre-forward but could go where he liked, conducting the orchestra with constant improvisation’. Never mind that Kuper misrepresents the role of the conductor in his tribute (after all, there are plenty of music professionals who are guilty of that too). But he does paint a picture of someone throwing off his shackles to transform the way his game was played, and he does reach for the orchestra as being the kind of place where such things already happen.

That, and the almost universal praise for Cruyff’s liberating effect on the players around him, got me wondering why the orchestral world is not full of his musical equivalents – not just extremely talented musicians but also musicians who are rethinking the way the orchestra works, transforming something routine and predictable into something exciting and inventive. Orchestras would sound and even look different, adopting different formations – and I don’t just mean playing in different places. But with one or two exceptions, like the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra with its occasional introduction of movement and choreography into its performances, that hardly seems to be the case now.

Now you might say that Cruyff, being a footballer, was restricted to playing in a team and therefore had no choice as to where he carried out his revolution. Musical mavericks at least have the option of playing solo and needn’t trouble themselves with fighting the system. The point is that despite the fact that winning is meant to be the number one goal in football as in most professional sports and that style is subordinate to that, Cruyff and his team mates cared less about the result than the manner in which they played.

Music, however, is different. Since you can’t win a symphony, you can play as if you have nothing to lose – you don’t have to worry about dropping points in a league, or being knocked out of a tournament by an opponent. You don’t have to worry about defending a lead, so there is no reason to play it safe. That’s one reason why my heart sinks a little when I hear orchestras praised for the discipline of their playing. It’s not that I want indiscipline (and an awareness of the so-called ‘rules’ is probably helpful along the way), but is that really what I want to take away from a concert, rather than a sense of individuality, self-reliance, spontaneity, flexibility, responsiveness, daring, vision?

The same goes for chamber music, where the possibilities for a more devil-may-care approach are even greater than in orchestra: why do so many programmes resemble each other (three quartets, one of which will be Schubert’s Death and the Maiden or Janáček’s Intimate Letters or Dvořák’s American)? Why do so many groups coordinate their look, shunning the traditional evening dress only to replace it with something equally uniform? Unlike in football, there’s no practical reason for everyone to wear the same kit.

Ultimately, however, appearance is a side issue. Cruyff’s real achievement – and this is where I see an example for musicians to follow, if we can only read between the lines a little – seems to have been to put the ball back at the feet of his fellow players. Thanks to the licence given them by his example and by an enlightened team manager, they were able to play for themselves and for each other. At the same time they were entrusted with greater responsibility as players, being occasionally required to play out of position, free to make instinctive tactical decisions as the game was in progress without needing the authorisation of the manager on the touchline. And in so doing, they delighted the crowds.

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