What a bad reed says about classical music

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162d/1244062490-todd_palmer_cropped_resized.jpgIn the middle of today's performance of a Mozart clarinet quintet, the music stopped. Clarinetist Todd Palmer was having a problem with his reed. That's rare but not unheard of. Reeds are after all fragile little pieces of wood that can inexplicably split, sometimes right in your mouth (I had this happen once while learning clarinet rudiments in college). Charles Wadsworth, sitting in the front row and watching the performance, asked if he needed to change his reed. Palmer's only response was that all this was embarrassing and that the audience would get their money back (he was joking). He finally got the reed working again and the concert proceeded beautifully. The whole episode probably lasted a minute. Yet the moment had some interesting implications (interesting to me, anyway).

One is there's too much pressure on these classical musicians to be perfect. Recording technology has trained our ears to expect perfection, and the redundancy of the classical music world in general — in which you put money down that programming, season after season after season, will feature yet another Beethoven symphony and yet another performance of Madame Butterfly — has made that expectation of perfection all the more intense, even debilitating. To be a classical musician, you might say, is not to stand on the shoulders of giants, but to have those same giants standing on your shoulders. Palmer said he was embarrassed, but there's no reason he should have been. Sure, there's a lot a musician can do to avoid these moments, but one can't control everything. I hope the audience wasn't as hard on him as Palmer was on himself.

Another thing was that the bad reed was an opportunity for drama, which came from a brief departure from the typical austerity of chamber music concerts. Yes, yes. I know, I know. Wadsworth is supposed to have done a lot to challenge that attitude, but he's never undermined it. He has needed it as much as chamber music has needed him. But to break the hallowed air of classical music! Oh, the shame of disrupting Mozart's genius!

Even so, the drama served to create a sense of doubt — is Palmer going to pull through? Doubt isn't typical in chamber music concerts. The St. Lawrence String Quartet is so good and so polished and so refined, you never have reason to think, gee, can they do it? But when Palmer's reed blew out, doubt was raised, and it created (in my mind at least) a kind of alertness, a kind of freshness, a kind of in-the-momentness, that can't be experienced with a recording no matter how perfect. Thanks to Palmer's reed problem, the audience was with him all the way. And in this sense, it was far from embarrassing. It was something to be savored, maybe even expected. -JS

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