It has become clear to me that musicians – like elite athletes – evolve. Just over 50 years ago, in 1954, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Up until then it was thought to be an impossible barrier. Similarly, long distance runners are currently trying to break the 2-hour barrier for a marathon. At least 10 runners have already broken the 2:05 barrier, with one as quick as 2:02:57, but we aren’t there yet. Mark my words though, we’ll be there soon!
Even in my relatively short span on this earth, I have watched the level of musical ability and expression go through the roof. When I was a kid in the 1970s, orchestral pieces like the Rite of Spring, and the Mahler Symphonies (except for No. 1), were only performed by the highest level professional ensembles. Now, they are performed regularly by youth orchestras all over the world. For trombone players, the Creston Fantasy and Berio’s Sequenza V were only performed by the highest-level graduate students and professionals. Now, it’s not unusual for a freshman in college to play the Creston quite eloquently.
If we look back even further, it’s possible to see this evolution starting well over one hundred years ago. Tchaikovsky originally wrote his Violin Concerto for Leopold Auer, but Auer called it unplayable, and declined to give its premiere. It took another three years for the piece to reach the concert hall. A young violinist, Adolf Brodsky, learned the concerto, and persuaded Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic to program it on a concert in December 1881. Auer later admitted that the concerto was merely difficult, not unplayable, and he taught it to his students, including Heifetz, Elman, Zimbalist, and Seidel. Today we’re used to prodigies, and mature superstars alike regularly performing the work, while thinking nothing of its technical challenges.
I wonder then, what musicians will achieve even in the next 20 years. I look forward to witnessing this evolution, and seeing what artistic and physical feats we humans are capable of attaining.