With more than 10,000 hours of playing behind him, a masters’ degree from one of the best guitar programs in the world, and a slew of competition experience, Jesse Freedman is a young established musician. He teaches at Westminster Conservatory in Princeton, through Rider University, and plays in concerts around the US and in Europe.
Most recently I saw Jesse perform Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op. 70” in a chapel at Rider University. It was a quiet piece, played with emotion, and it was easy to see that Jesse enjoyed the music he was playing. Britten is one of his favorite composers.
Likewise, Julian Bream, for whom Britten composed, is one of Jesse’s favorite guitarists. In classical guitar music, composer/guitarist relationships are unique. Because guitar chords require distinct hand positions, the composer and guitarist have to work closely together to create a piece that sounds right and is playable. This has the added result, Jesse says, of making music transcribed to guitar sound “guitary”.
It also raises the question: if the composer is the one who manages the music, is a player just a medium for the emotion of the composer? Is listening to classical music like reading a translation of a foreign novel?
There are two answers to this question. One centers around the idea of Performance Practice, which requires music to be played to the taste of— and on instruments that were used at— the time a given piece was written. It requires a good deal of research, and success is arguably limited to the strength of available resources.
This idea of “historical authenticity” is sometimes at odds with players who value the emotion of the present moment rather than that perceived from the past/text.
I like to think of myself as someone that knows the conventions. I think it’s important to be cognizant of conventions, but for people who prize historical authenticity or what they deem to be authentic from an historical standpoint, being authentic can override what sounds good.
It seems the tension between musicians who value historical authenticity and those who want to let their passion determine what “sounds good” has a big impact on the interpretation of classical music. Pin-pointing the composer’s intention is important, but at the same time, it’s just as important that the music is accessible to today’s listeners. He says,
Music is important but not at the risk of and making people feel stupid… I think [attendance issues] are something on both sides of it. At a conservatory, 90% of your audience is other musicians. There is a place for getting together and presenting to your music family, but so much music is confined to universities. [Experimental music] is not necessarily something people want to hear, but if you provide it in a context to people, and explain it and invite people as a discourse, and make it not scary: that’s great.
Jesse’s own concerts are communal events. His parents and family are there, along with an inordinate number of friends and supporters in the crowd. The concerts bring people together, and they are easy to enjoy even for those who don’t understand the theory or history of the music.
In today’s digital world a classical performance is increasingly valuable. It can be a time to be quiet, and focus. It’s a time for deliberate thought. Listening to classical music is rewarding, but it can be tiring. It’s difficult to stay present for an entire performance. As Jesse told me, when he’s in the audience he’ll often find himself wondering about mundane things like train schedules, or what he’ll have for dinner. He says that’s a healthy thing though; it’s okay to zone out.
After the concert at Rider, Jesse was standing halfway up the aisle, cornered by some of the crowd. His hands were behind his back and his cheeks were flushed. He received congratulations and compliments graciously.
It’s good to see him get the recognition he deserves. As his friend, I know he’s put a lot of effort towards this dream, and things do not always line up perfectly. I am happy to see Jesse perform, and what makes his music exciting to me is the productive way that I have known him to work through hardships and detour. That is a real strength, and one that I think continues to shape the emotion he puts into his music.
Here’s Jesse performing Giulio Regondi’s Etude No. 10: