The Rip Post




(July 11, 2016)

I like music critic Donna Perlmutter,
but I think she's as nuts as people who like cheese on apple pie---as far as her opinion of LA Phil violist Carrie Dennis is concerned.

Ms. Dennis might be perfectly nice. She might be charitable to cats, dogs, children. She might light up a room. She is obviously a technically superb player. But she has zero business doing what she does in the orchestra, which is to play her viola like she's Jimi Hendrix. She has not yet done the tongue wiggle and set the thing on fire, but I think she would if she could get away with it.

Dennis is of the severely unfortunate school of playing (sprung up in recent decades) that equates gesticulation---in her case, such that you wonder if she is having an epileptic fit---with "expressiveness." She dips. She doubles over. She nearly falls out of her chair. She writhes. She just misses elbowing her colleague in the face. She stamps her feet. She does mini-Rockette kicks. She wobbles left and right to the point that her chair begins rocking.

And all this while playing the viola, folks. Not electric guitar. The viola.
The instrument whose predecessor bore the beguiling name, "Viola d'amore." The lower, low-profile purveyor of rich, burnished tone that gives such warmth and glow to ensemble personality. Viola d'amore?  Viola d'abhor.

This would all be perfectly fine in a circus.

There is a fallacy about this popular "expressive style," about as large and obvious as Texas. Yet it apparently, given veteran music critic Perlmutter's endorsement, needs pointing out: gesticulation does not necessarily equate to "expressiveness." It usually equates to showing off, establishing a reputation, making money, indulging ego. I give you: Yo Yo Ma. (Ohmygawd, how can Rense badmouth Yo Yo Ma!) and that other Chinese musician with two names, Lang Lang. Ma plays those Bach cello suites like they are Rachmaninov and he is on crystal meth, and while he is nowhere near as vulgar and gratuitous in his body and facial language as Dennis, he does play like this is his last act before going to the gallows. As for Lang Lang, now we have a fair idea what it would look like to play piano while being fellated.

You like Ma's playing, fine. But go to Youtube and compare his Bach cello suites with those of Mstislav Rostropovich. Do it with your ears, not eyes. Rostropovich's playing is far more nuanced, far more lyrical, far more enticing, than Ma's. There is simply no comparison. One player serves himself, the other serves the music. And Rostropovich moved, by the way, only as much as was necessary to play. What a concept! His focus was on the sounds he produced, not whether he could do a seated tango while producing them.

The music, in other words, was the point, not the player. Not so with Ma, not so with Dennis (and countless others.) Which brings up another problem: Dennis's sound. Get this: you can often hear her viola (ready for this?) above the orchestra. At least I can. Correct. Almost as if she is playing a solo, and the orchestra is backing her up. Really. I've been there, I've heard it. Ludicrous, you say? Sure. But more important, a distraction---and that's the real trouble here.

I no longer go to LA Phil concerts because CEO Deborah "Lucretia" Borda raised prices to unconscionable levels while smilingly telling the public, "Think of Disney Hall as your living room!" (My living room is cheaper.) But one of the things that drove me permanently away was Carrie Dennis. True, I sat above her side of the orchestra, and from that vantage point, she is the main focus of attention---yes, more so than the conductor! You cannot ignore the fact that there appears to be an escaped lunatic pretending to play viola in the middle of an orchestra. I took to sitting there with my eyes closed, and for the money I was spending, I would really also have enjoyed viewing the performance.

But the prevalent dumbed-down it's-all-good attitude today is me, me, and also me. If I'm moving around, contorting, doing the frug, why, the music I'm making must be good! It's legacy of rock 'n' roll weedly-weedly crotch-bulging guitar players and troglodyte lead singers who prance about like the devil is prodding them in the ass with a pitchfork. And the dumbed-down audiences, of course, automatically think they are seeing something great.

I knew the longtime principal violist of the old L.A. Phil, a lovely fellow by the name of Jan Hlinka. Jan was given to a bit of swaying, a bit of head-dipping, when he felt it, or the music moved him to it, but for the most part, the gesticulation was in the sound. That's the point. Everything Dennis does looks affected, contrived, and she does it constantly. The sound of her playing could be just as expressive if she ditched all the flash and frolic. But she (and countless other musicians) have been trained to the contrary in recent decades. I have a flutist friend in an orchestra in the Midwest. She has played there for 30 years, and now must contend with a very snotty, aggressive twenty-something who has nearly bopped her in the face with her flute "expressiveness."

My old friend, Jan, was such a kind fellow that he would undoubtedly have liked Carrie Dennis, and been very supportive of her. While privately thinking how sad it is that she needs such a crutch in order to "express." It's like gesturing while you speak. This used to be considered a weakness, something you did because you did not have sufficient verbal skills to convey your meaning(!). In the Dumbed Down States of America, wild, phoney gesturing is now the norm for every TeeVee Newsmannequin and host. It would be hilarious if it weren't so self-serious.

But Donna Perlmutter seems largely of the "it's all good" school, and Carrie Dennis is apparently her new fave. I have a gesture for both of them, but I'll keep it to myself.

Donna Perlumutter's review:

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