Curious that on today's broadcast of Performance Today we have two pianists who've been criticized by some for their physical gestures on stage: Andre Watts playing Schubert in concert in Fort Worth, and Olli Mustonen playing Beethoven in Hamburg.
Mustonen's Beethoven performance sounds inspired: luminous, radiant, powerful...and of course, we can't SEE what he's up to, this being radio. But to get a sense of why NY Times critic Anthony Tommasini called Mustonen a "whirlybird," check out this video dug up by PT intern Alex Coppock.
Mustonen must have done more in New York than he does here...I see some "hand poetry" and pointy elbows at 3:10, but nothing that would justify the "whirlybird" nickname. (Maybe there are too many keyboard close-ups in this video?)
I've never understood the intensity of some critics' displeasure with performers who have physical mannerisms. Joshua Bell dips and spins his torso when he plays violin, Lang Lang throws his head back and gazes open-mouthed at the ceiling from the piano bench, Andre Watts stamps his feet or grimaces. In all of that I see an expression of deep engagement with the music, but some find themselves distracted by it, or even accuse players of self-consciously mugging. If you get distracted...why not close your eyes?
In his own defense, Andre Watts says:
The piano is a percussion instrument, and the great Joseph Hoffman said it so wonderfully "you know, we're all playing a percussion instrument, and we're trying to make it sing." Do you know, the minute we play a note, it starts to decay. I think all the mannerisms...no, I don't think, I KNOW all the mannerisms are a compensation. I think that if I were able to produce at will what I would like to hear, I would have no mannerisms whatsoever.
And for more on this topic, check out our feature from 2007 on visual distractions in classical concerts. (It's about halfway down the page on the right side.) Lang Lang answers his critics, conductor William Eddins responds to an audience member who complained that he "wiggled his bum" on the podium, and the Eroica Trio takes on the critique that they distract from their music by dressing "too alluringly."
The intensity of the displeasure of critics over performer's mannerisms comes from the fact that critics believe that the music and musical performances are ultimately about pleasing them. Music IS about them, isn't it? It is also that sterility that comes from vain intellectualism.
I quote Eliot:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass