Naomi Lewin, WQXR Host
Naomi Lewin is the weekend host on WQXR, and host of the weekly podcast Conducting Business.
Memorization is ingrained in the protocol of classical music performance. Singers, solo pianists and concerto soloists are usually expected to play "by heart." However, trios, string quartets and larger ensembles almost never play from memory (with occasional exceptions).
But these rules, which evolved over time, may not stand up to close scrutiny. Some musicians find memorization liberating, but others say it inhibits, creating an unnecessary fear of forgetting the music. On this week's episode, we get two views on the topic.
The concert pianist and writer Stephen Hough says he thinks it's time to reconsider the conventions around memorization. He asks, "Isn't it most important that we play our best? And if we really play our best with a score in front of us – or these days an iPad in front of us – perhaps we shouldn't pay too much attention to this."
Hough notes with some amusement that audience members will frequently approach him backstage and express amazement at how he remembered all of the notes. But not, "'how did you find the musical meaning behind those notes, how do you pedal, how do you find nuance,' or all those thousands of things that we musicians work on all the time."
Also joining us is Nicholas Collon, the conductor and founder of Aurora Orchestra, a London-based chamber orchestra that recently performed Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 at the BBC Proms, without using scores or sheet music. The performance proved to be controversial, first dismissed by some pundits as a gimmick (reviews, however, were overwhelmingly positive). Collon says that some players found the preparation "stressful" at first, but ultimately it was liberating.
Listen to the above segment and tell us what you think below: Does memorization matter? Do you enjoy performances that are memorized more than those that aren't?