State of the Art

Man meets machine in orchestra-free concerto

Frederick Moyer plays on a new recording of three piano concertos, and he’s the only musician who does.
Frederick Moyer plays on a new recording of three piano concertos, and he’s the only musician who does. Courtesy of Frederick Moyer

Nobody has written a piece titled Concerto for Piano and No Orchestra, as far as Google knows, but maybe that’s just a matter of time.

I have been listening to a set of three concertos recorded by pianist Frederick Moyer and the “East West Quantum Leap Orchestra created by Stephen Ware” (a Britisher, not the Stephen Ware Charlotteans knew as an actor in the 1980s and ’90s).

Together, they played Rachmaninov’s Second, Saint-Saëns’ Fourth and Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto,” a 9-minute piece written for the score of the 1941 film “Dangerous Moonlight” (aka “Suicide Squadron”).

Perhaps “played” is the wrong word: Moyer played a concert grand, while Ware sampled all the orchestral sounds, note by note, until he had built up an “orchestra.” The liner notes explain that this approach saves no time, as Ware has to play each note individually.

The disc has come out on the JRI Recordings label with a handsome presentation, intelligent notes by Jay Rosenblatt and a thoughtful analysis of the reasons music can (and perhaps should) be made this way.

One of the positive effects is perfection: You can adjust individual sounds long after they were recorded to avoid errors that almost inevitably crop up when recording a conventional orchestra. Another is the ability to highlight certain passages we might ordinarily miss: The booklet gives examples in the first movement of the Rachmaninov where appealing trumpet, cello and timpani lines have been slightly boosted, so we’ll hear what they’re doing.

Because I knew what I was listening to when I donned my headphones, I will never be able to guess what my reactions to a blind test might have been. I can only report what I heard: The engineering is first-rate, though it favors Moyer’s elegant solo playing, and the orchestral instruments sounded natural enough.

And yet....

When a live orchestra moves forward together, a surge of energy results. This isn’t simply a matter of playing louder or faster or with more sharply defined rhythms; it’s a pulse that the synthesized orchestra doesn’t duplicate.

I checked the timing of the movements against other recordings I own, and they’re not significantly slower. They’re just listless. No composer can out-sparkle Saint-Saëns at his merriest; here the accompaniment sounds dutiful. To use Anthony Burgess’ description of the last moments of Cyrano de Bergerac, it’s “shod in marble, gloved in lead.”

This doesn’t seem like a “triumph” of humanity over mechanics, the way it did when world chess champion Garry Kasparov defeated IBM’s computer Deep Blue 20 years ago. (He lost a rematch, of course.) Rather, it’s a reminder that certain elements of human endeavor – a crucial element, in this case – can’t be repeated mechanically by even clever programmers.

For now, anyway.

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