“You’re only as good as you once were”.

I went to a solo recital of a very distinguished pianist, now a septuagenarian, at Carnegie Hall a while back. Having exited the hall, I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. Actually, I felt quite underwhelmed. The concert was a disappointment, I was sure. It might have been a case of the musician being caught on an off day, which is certainly permissible, in spite of (or because of, depending on who you ask) the huge amounts of money involved. However, I was pretty sure the pianist had not prepared well. He flubbed passages in almost all the pieces; there were lazy, repeated mannerisms in interpretation, and his playing generally sounded lukewarm and monotone in dynamics and expressive intensity. Some moments were special, but most weren’t. Still, a pretty rowdy applause followed each piece he played and the vibe seemed as though we are witnessing something exceptional, to be savored and remembered.

I doubted myself at first – was the recital really that bad? But he is so famous! Maybe I am in a contrarian mood. Ultimately, I trusted my feeling about it. Casual chats with a few friends who attended quickly found common points of agreement about the playing, but their assessments were more positive. “Oh, but he’s a great hero of mine”, they would say. The review in the New York Times came several days later and was mostly laudatory.

I have seen this scenario play out a number of times. This happened with a Grammy Award-winning piano trio, which showed up woefully unprepared to play a concerto at a summer festival at which I played, and then proceeded to blame everyone but themselves; there is a certain tenor who is now a baritone and a conductor that arouses similar feelings of being past his prime, even among reviewers; and so on. No matter, casual observations of the audience’s reactions betray giddiness and delight at having had a chance to be there.

The proclivity to ignore today’s playing versus what we remember or would like it to be seems to be directly proportional to the great artists’ successful decades on stage. Imagine if this same exact piano recital I saw had been given by a budding young star who was relatively unknown and had never graced this famous stage before. The flubs wouldn’t have been rationalized, the unevenness of the playing either; and the few moments of unusual interpretative insight and beauty would not have been lauded as enough of a reason to be there. There would be no talk of heroes, no flattering review and something tells me the applause would have been much less hearty. Why is that?

The lure of the magic that “famous artists” possess is a powerful one. We get attached to these people after years of seeing their faces on album covers, reading about them, knowing their recordings in detail and admiring them. The pantheon of “famous artists” is a special place, deserved by outstanding musicianship, artistry and originality, and many years of delivering it on stage; but it is also perpetrated by decades of positive publicity, most of it bordering on hagiography. Among famous artists, there are apparently no philanderers, alcoholics, junkies, narcissistic egomaniacs or lousy parents. Never mind that most rarely get bad reviews anymore: the truth of the matter is, names on the billboards can be huge brands and as such begin to reliably attract audiences, and there is plenty of interest on all sides not to disturb that balance.

The old adage “you’re only as good as your last performance” is harder to follow when emotion becomes involved. In certain cases, especially with passage of time and legendary careers, it becomes “you’re only as good as you were at your best, and that’s what we want to remember and/or convince the audience they’re about to hear.” Not to be ignored are branding and publicity; music is subjective and esoteric, and if you are convincingly told by authoritative sources that you are about to witness another great performance by someone who has become a star in their lifetime, you are more likely to believe that.

This is hardly just a question of groupthink. I believe our own biases are as much to blame. When this is a musician whose sound you’ve loved for ages and whose playing you’ve come to know, it becomes personal and you feel like as though you have a relationship with their artistry, which you cherish. It is then unsurprising that we are biased in the face of new evidence and strive to protect the “investment” we have made in our relationship with this person. When someone’s playing makes you feel something deeply, even from the medium of an audio recording, that is powerful and not easily forgotten. It seems almost rude to soil the contributions they have made with a coldly objective assessment of what we’ve heard today. But is it?

Music is dependent on strong personalities and subjective perception. That certainly makes it what is – a wonderful, utterly human endeavor which rises above the material world into its own universe, unlike sports, whose great practitioners inspire endless awe yet are very different in their measurability. While music does combine elements of more objective disciplines such as mathematics, astronomy and architecture into its unique language, it remains a distillate and a projection of us, not of the hard reality we inhabit.

It is nice to have those special people to look up to in music. We want to think they’re perfect and cherish the magic they bring to the world. Why it is that we’re less willing to view them as flawed is hard to explain. But one thing is for sure. No tennis player or actor could get out there without being in shape or knowing their lines, regardless of how well they’ve done in the past. There are no such reserves of good will on which to draw. But with music, the kind of subjective magic we find in it gives a lot of leeway to the select and special few.