Classical Music

Star Power

The mystery of musical charisma.

What accounts for charisma in music–for the authority or power that strangely radiates from this or that performer, not just from the sound but (so it seems) from the performer’s personality, from the shake of a head or the expressive curl of a wrist? I realize that, of all the grand effects that music can produce, charisma is one of the cheapest–which is to say, the easiest to fake, if your standards are not too high. Years ago, in the days before I became a journalist, I played trombone with a group called the Uptown Horns, backing up blues and rock bands, and I savor the memory of how our jaded little group used to mock the rock world’s cult of the charismatic. To hold one’s fist stiffly in the air in a gesture of ridiculous defiance while the bass amplifier thundered and the guitar shrieked and our man on tenor sax honked deliriously, and to see a barroom audience respond with shouts and their own idiotic fists in the beery air–that was to laugh. A fascist rally at the Second Avenue gin mill. We musicians were all smirks, behind our kick-ass façade.

In the last few months I’ve been running around to classical concerts in New York looking for charismatic qualities in places where, in theory, they might be expected, and I’ve noticed something else about the charismatic in music. A genuine touch of the charismatic is never where you expect it to be. A given soloist might be wonderfully talented, and might choose to perform the kind of music that exudes noble and heroic inspirations with every phrase–and, even so, the indefinable strength that counts as charismatic might fail to appear. An example–not to be cruel, but just to show what I’m getting at–could be seen at the New York Philharmonic debut, a couple of months ago, of a violinist named Frank Peter Zimmermann, from Germany.

Zimmermann’s reputation in Germany is said to be excellent. In New York, where he played the Bruch Violin Concerto in G minor, the audience leapt to its feet and gushed appreciation. The New York Times pronounced itself content. Yet what can I say? It may have been the doughy look of earnest concentration on the young man’s ample cheeks, or it may have been his habit, at the conclusion of every dazzling, double-stopped arpeggio, of deftly lifting his bow off the strings with a satisfied air–a happy pastry chef, pleased and relieved to have given the world one more perfect Linzer torte. And the result was, to be honest, dismal–even if the concerto’s many splendidly demagogic passages, performed virtuosically, did their customary work.
       The clearest examples of charismatic musicianship that I’ve seen lately have been in performances by Yuri Bashmet, the Russian violist, who was in New York not long ago, conducting his own chamber orchestra at Carnegie Hall and playing with the Philharmonic under Kurt Masur. Bashmet ought to be an unlikely source of spectacular and forceful effects, due to the humble nature of his instrument. The viola tends to be plaintively melancholic, or else to squawk, ugly-duckling style, like a bassoon or an English horn. In the pantheon of instruments, the viola is a mortal, not a god. Yet when Bashmet comes out onto the stage, wiping his Prince Valiant locks off his face and holding his non-god by its helpless neck, like a dead rabbit, you feel, even before he starts to play, a vibration in the air, ever so slightly, as if gusting from the air conditioner.

B efore he starts? I admit there is something fishy in that observation. I blame his pre-concert publicity. Bashmet, we are told (by virtually every journalist who has written about him), began his musical career on the electric guitar–a teen-age rock star in Rostov-on-Don back in the late 1960s. He played in a Beatles-style band, then embraced the viola out of the despairing recognition that, on the guitar, he would never match the fireworks of Jimi Hendrix, his idol. And so the violist gazes outward from the stage, and the audience, mulling over the biographical background with its air of ‘60s mayhem and long-lost Soviet dissident hipness, is bound to wonder: Is this a Promethean figure, Hendrix-like, standing before us? A man of extremes? On the verge of mental derangement?      He plays with a weird supercontrol. He produces a wide, sumptuous vibrato when he wants to, and at other times the speedy wobble of a swallowed scream. But characteristically, he uses very little vibrato at all, and the tones that emerge are round and affectless, like a man singing falsetto. His emotional peaks are almost always achieved at the lowest volume. He whispers. You expect him to sink beneath the level of audibility. But those falsetto timbres of his make a searing tone, even in a middle register, where tones are usually not searing, and the sound is an X-ray, which penetrates everywhere.

T he of his performances that I have heard do not capture the full strangeness in this sound. The CDs get louder or softer, but the quality of penetration fails to vary. The true X-ray tonality is something you can hear only in the concert hall. And in the concert hall you become aware, also, how risky it is for him to produce that very strange sound–which is to say, how heroic is his playing. In a recital at Carnegie Hall more than a year ago, he reached for that sound and, at one excruciating moment, lost control of his bowing and sent out a wild overtone, double the volume of his normal playing, like the feedback on an electric guitar, Hendrix-like, after all–the worst howler I’ve ever heard from a musician of first rank.      At his Philharmonic appearance during his most recent visit, he performed a viola concerto by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, who not only wrote the piece for him but was kind enough to derive a theme cabalistically from the letters in Bashmet’s name. The concerto–you can hear it for yourself on RCA Victor Red Seal–is a fantastic affair. It feels like an ancient epic, with the viola as Gilgamesh, wandering the earth. Unspeakable horrors deploy across the background. Tartar hordes and Stalinist work brigades seem to go marching past, in flaming colors. The violence is shocking. The starry sky is gorgeous

S chnittke is a witty composer, and at certain moments you have the feeling that he is drunkenly singing sardonic songs of woe and contempt. And, all the while, Yuri Bashmet goes threading his way across the foreground, a lonely man with an eerie and haunting sound, sometimes quietly shrieking, sometimes singing lyrically–a heartbreaking figure, heartbreakingly courageous–until, by the end, he seems to be quietly sobbing. I’m not sure that, in the course of his performance with the Philharmonic, Bashmet didn’t once again lose control of. Yet by the end I was nearly sobbing myself.      It was because the charismatic in music is genuinely awe-inspiring, and to watch the violist trek across Schnittke’s barbarous Russian landscape was like watching humanity and inhumanity in ferocious battle, waging every grand and noble struggle that we associate with the 19th-century violin concertos, except without any of the reassuring triumphalism that, among 19th-century composers, was indistinguishable from a finale.      But what is this awesome thing–the charismatic in music? My supposition of the moment–now that I find myself under Bashmet’s sway (a definite indication of charismatic force, by the way)–is that charisma in music, the real thing and not the fake, is a more-than-musical quality. Music is always telling stories (more or less), and I think that charismatic power is an element in one of those stories–the force we feel when a strong personality comes up against a demonic power and refuses to be cowed, and takes hair-raising risks, and succeeds in being, if only for a moment, the demon’s equal.