The End of the Virtuoso?

by maribé

The word virtuoso has been used to describe a highly accomplished musician, one who astonishes audiences with astounding displays of skill and whose performance provokes tons of ‘bravo’ from the audience. Paganini was one of them, if not the most famous one. His musical genius was surrounded by a certain degree of mysticism; he even came to be known as the devil’s son.  He introduced the idea of the virtuoso as an element of art. Nevertheless, this highly praised ability to play the most difficult passages and improvise the way Paganini did was something that only very few musicians possessed back then.

However, the growth of technical proficiency has increased rapidly throughout the years. According to reporter Anthony Tommasini (NY Times article below), “the fact that a young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago.” Some examples of virtuosos today are Sarah Chang, Lang Lang, and the 7-year old violinist from the video I posted below. Consequently, it is not that there is a lack of virtuosity, but that more and more musicians are responding positively to new challenges and have more access and resources for training. This may have some major consequences. For instance, is it harder nowadays for a performer to be recognized for his work simply because the audience expects all soloists to be equally good when attending a classical/instrumental music concert? If the audience judges a musician based on whether he or she is able to perform pieces from the traditional repertoire (such as Chopin in the case of pianists), then once the musician passed a certain threshold he is simply considered as one more virtuoso.

In addition to the performer, some outstanding composers have also been referred to as virtuosos. Do you think this could influence the success of new works by beginning composers? If the general audience expects the composer to pass a certain threshold in order for the work to be ‘great,’ then being creative and coming up with new and different ideas that do not fit the standards of what is expected of a virtuous composer could mean that the new work is underestimated.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/arts/music/yuja-wang-and-kirill-gerstein-lead-a-new-piano-generation.html?pagewanted=2

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