On violinist Mark O’Connor and how his blog post renders itself ineffective

by: Raine

Mark O’Connor, a brilliant American violinist and virtuoso performer, has written a blog post that infuriates me. It is supposed to explore whether J.S. Bach should be performed in the style it was “intended” to be performed in three hundred years ago or whether it should be reinterpreted to fit the modern era.

Before I get started, here is the blog post. It’s long. Very, very long.

Undressing J.S. Bach For Today’s Unyielding Classical Violinists

In case you all didn’t know, or even if you did, I’m a classical musician, a cellist. In the classical music world, most professionals tend to veer towards performing dead composers pieces in historically accurate ways. What does that mean? It means these professionals think that the music should be played EXACTLY as they were written with the same bowings, and ornamentation, and dynamics. Of course there is room for personal expression and interpretation, but even that should be subject to the performance rules of the time period. At least that’s the general consensus of the classical world. Yes, we’re snobs.

What Mark O’Connor is trying to say, at least what I believe he is trying to say, is that we can’t know for sure what Bach wanted because the man is dead and he left no correspondence as to how his music should be performed three hundred years in the future. O’Connor has rebowed the sonatas and partitas in his own, very particular (and awesome) style and presented them to violin professors at some of the biggest American conservatories to ask their opinions of his ‘alterations’ or, perhaps, ‘bastardizations’ of Bach’s work. His endeavor is something I’m interested in. It’s a valid point. We live in the 21st century. Should we still be playing things the way Bach did? Or should we re-invent the wheel? He argues that current performance practice of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas are boring, and yet, in major conservatories and in music schools in general, that is pretty much the ONLY accepted way to play them: as they were written.

He continues to provide thousands and thousands of words of arguments that are all valid.

Now here’s where I get pissed off. He has WONDERFUL arguments, but he renders them all ineffective. His points and approach have been self-defeated. Why? For several reasons.

1) This is a MONSTAR blog post to read. It is much too long. I’m a reader, and I struggled through the behemoth. The man has a huge following all over the world. He’s one of the finest violinists we have today and his bow arm is pretty much hard to top, but that is no excuse to write such a ridiculously long post. If he intended to convince anyone of anything, he needs to do it while they’re still paying attention.

2) It’s horribly organized. Did he have anyone edit this thing? He makes the same points over and over again and intersperses them with other points and is generally all over the place. He should’ve argued each of his points in turn and always gone back to his point: how to make Bach relevant in a world where classical musicians are adverse to change. Instead he jumped from snarking on respected people to bragging about his own bowings to pointing out contradictions in speech and in practice. He would’ve benefited from section headings.

3) Mark O’Connor alienated me with the intensity of his distaste towards people who didn’t agree with him, namely the people he questioned about his bowings. In other words, he had a nasty, nasty attitude. What the hell? If you’re trying to convince a large group of people of something, hating on respected pedagogues and performers isn’t the way to go. It invalidates arguments because it makes them seem emotionally based rather than logical. That, and I hate reading angry shit like that. And I really respect Mark O’Connor so it’s disappointing. He also made nasty attacks on people who disagreed with him, and some of these people he has worked with. Where do personal attacks come into an argument about Bach and performance? Especially when they’re on a public blog and his audience base is GINORMOUS!

4) That brings me to my last point: with great power comes great responsibility. This guy is famous. He’s got the eyes and ears of lots of people. It’s his responsibility to use his fame wisely and not act like a cranky old man venting his jaded life views. I felt so completely blasted by his negative attitude that I had to force myself to find his real points, which were supposed to be about Bach and performance practice. It was why I started the article in the first place.

Now I think I sound angry and jaded, but I’m very disappointed. I wish this post had been better written with a better tone that would’ve made his AWESOME points valid. He points out how ‘accepted bowings’ were actually written by a guy who lived two hundred years after Bach but violinists rationalize this as “Oh, this is what Bach wanted.” Well, how do we really know that? That’s a very, very valid, very, very curious point. But it gets lost in hating on the people who support historically correct performance practice.

Dear Mark O’Connor,

You’re so creative and brilliant, but this post disappoints me. So much so that I had to write about it. I hope in the future that you can make more logic-based arguments without attacking your colleagues. It sets a bad example and made me feel bad while reading it.

Sincerely,

Raine

11 thoughts on “On violinist Mark O’Connor and how his blog post renders itself ineffective

  1. mariannephan says:

    As a violinist, I must comment – a lot of us are assholes unintentionally. I have a lot of respect for Mark O’Connor with how he’s a versatile violinist who’s also into music education. That being said, his post WAS fairly abrasive towards disagreeing musicians, and that it was backwards from what he usually seems to promote, but I think it was maybe more a post made in the heat of passion from Bach frustration. O’Connor is a virtuoso fiddler and entitled to his own opinions, but I agree with you that he was kind of a Bach snob. If anything, Hilary Hahn is the premier source for all that is Bach these days, but she’s too much of a sweetie to chide people for having sub-par bowings that have been debated and misinterpreted for centuries.

    • Raine says:

      Marianne,

      Thank you for commenting! Yay string players! My blog is primarily geared towards Korean drama so I don’t really have a community of string players to discuss with!

      I really respect him, too, which is why I wonder at this post, despite the frustration with the string community.

      I admit, as a cellist, I’m an asshole INTENTIONALLY sometimes. But I also don’t get 1000 views in an hour on my blog and have communities all over the world reading my opinion. As a pedagogue and virtuoso, I think its his responsibility to watch himself. But also, in a way, that could be his point. I just don’t like that style…that abrasive attack on others in the community. We have enough to deal with as string players in a sports/rock/television infested world to be nasty to each other. Of course…I indulge in sports, rock and television…

  2. coffeenlucia says:

    Raine, we should be cello buddies! I play cello too~
    Omigosh I looked at the article and it’s so long, and he did insult several people personally in it too… O.O

    It’s up to people’s personal opinion whether or not they want to change the bowing. Grr.

    And his wording… it was just brutal.
    He wrote “To ‘deface’ Phillips’s own comments” to refute Phillips’ point, for instance. Aish. “Ouch!” “Philips fussed over” “but c’mon, a little dignity please”
    I feel so sorry for each and every person he personally insulted in the article.

    • Raine says:

      I’m just sad cause he’s awesome in so many ways and this wasn’t awesome. Hi cello buddy! I’m working on, and have been for a long time, a few arrangements for cello quartet/quintets of kpop tunes! hehe. I need to get on it, but life gets in the way.

  3. RoboticRAven says:

    You know I like historically informed performance, but I disagree with your second large paragraph. Many performers think that it’s the STYLE and INTERPRETATION (sorry for the caps, I can’t make it do italics!) that should be historically accurate, not the mechanics. I agree with this point.

    Who cares if you play bowings you think Back wrote if you can’t make them sound like they would have in the Baroque style? Some of those bowings simply don’t work with modern bows. I think performance practice is all about making it SOUND the way you think it would have then. I change bowings and articulations all the time if it helps me sound the way I want to.

    Plus, from what I hear, modern performers AREN’T rigidly playing in a Baroque style. Are fully sustained, heavy bows and yowling cat vibrato Baroque? No. And that is what I hear from modern performers. To my ears, people are putting their own spin on Bach all the time. So I don’t think that’s the problem.

    Maybe modern listeners aren’t interested in Bach because they want something new. Not a new interpretation, not new mechanics, not new articulations. Just new music. And you know I like Bach. I still like playing Bach. I’m just saying, most listeners aren’t classical musicians, so they have different taste and desires for what they hear than classical musicians do.

    Anyway, that’s my long-winded, snobby musician’s take on that long-winded, snobby musician’s article! Other than that paragraph, I agree with you. And that article is too too LONG!

    • Raine says:

      Awesome, that’s what I wanted from you yesterday. I agree its also style and interpretation so true (I should’ve written that), but mechanics have a lot to do with it IMHO. They’re trying to reciprocate EVERYTHING From that time period. Maybe it’s a cello thing? If you leave out anything, people will yell. They like to yell in general. But Bach suites are not in his hand so we get lots of ‘whcih is the real version’ so certain notes, ornamentations and even rhythms are argued over.

      Also, what do you think of this: reciprocating style on a modern instrument…out of context of that time and performance venue. Is that true reciprocation? Or is it only the people who play on period instruments who have true reciprocation? In that case, what the hell are we doing, teaching all our players to play the same? What you think?

      • RoboticRAven says:

        I like getting as close to the correct style as possible, but I don’t think it’s possible to be 100% on modern instruments. I’ve played with a Baroque bow, and it feels completely different. It’s hard to emulate the style with my modern bow.

        I think maybe you cello people are crazier than violin people. Violinists have big egos (as proven by Mark O’Connor), so we change bowings all the time. I’ve never come across two editions of Bach violin sonatas and partitas with the same bowings.

        As for your second-to-last sentence, I think it’s possible to teach proper style and technique for a period while still allowing each player to use his own interpretation. Just because everyone plays the same bowings with the same style doesn’t mean they will PHRASE the same. And you know something Bach didn’t write a lot of? Dynamics. So there’s a lot of room for freedom there, too.

        IMHO (you inspired me to use text shorthand for once), throwing in gobs of vibrato and playing Bach like it’s Romantic is what makes every performance sound the same. That’s not what it was written for. There’s a purpose in sticking to the original style as much as you can, because that’s how that style sounds best. If we play EVERY piece of music with Romantic vibrato, tone, phrasing, dynamics, and articulations, that’s when variety truly dies.

        So, like I said before, I don’t think changing some bowings will fix the problem. So that long, long article had, IMHO, little point. But that’s just me. I’d rather talk to you about this stuff than read that article heheh.

        • Raine says:

          I agree with almost everything you said. Stylistically correct with personal interpretation!

          As for what he said, I think what he’s essentially saying is, “Let people play the way they want,” and I like that. I mean, everyone learns the ‘proper’, ‘accepted’, ‘stylistically correct’ ways, oh so we’re led to believe.

          Randomly: to mimic baroque bows, I sometimes bow backwards and that helped me emulate the sound of ones that I’ve tried. Have you tried that? There’s a lady inthe next town over who has tons of period instruments. We should go try them!

          I don’t think changing bowings will fix it either. I think my issue with people taking issue with changed bowings is…we do it ALL THE TIME and call it correct. And then vibrato the heck out of things and call it a day. Vibrato should be sparing and tone shouldn’t sound like 1000000 lb mack truck is sitting on your bow…hehe.

          • RoboticRAven says:

            Yeah, vibrato was used as an ornament back then. I like that idea. But, you know, I tend to do that in most music anyway… I guess that’s my style. I think vibrato is way, WAY overused in many eras of classical music, not just Baroque.

            I get let people play the way they want. But….. from what I hear, that’s what we’re doing. People play Bach however they want. So if that’s his point, we’re already there. What’s the problem?? hehe

            I bow backwards sometimes but I don’t notice it changing the sound that much. May be more of a cello thing. But if I hold my bow up, like not hold the frog but up on the stick, that changes it a lot and is the closest I’ve gotten to feeling like I’m playing with a Baroque bow.

            And we SHOULD check out a place with period instruments. WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME ABOUT THIS MAGICAL PLACE BEFORE????

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