One of the more interesting novels I’ve read is called “The Gate to Women’s Country,” mostly because the plot is not what the reader thinks it is. The plot is not quite the events in the book. It is instead the slow realization on the part of the reader just what is happening to the characters … what the real plot is. The plot of the book is the way that the reader comes to appreciate what is really going on.
Music is often said to have a “plot” or narrative as well. Some pieces have self-contained narratives, but others — like Tepper’s novel — include the reader/listener/audience in some way. Mystery novels are often like that — there is the main plot of the book, and the plot including the reader, who must realize what’s going on. That ah-ha moment is the real climax, not the point at which Colonel Mustard is discovered pipe in hand in the library closet. If the book is well-written, the ah-ha moment will come close enough before the reveal that the reader didn’t put the book down two chapters before, but early enough that they feel slightly cleverer than average at having sussed it out beforehand.
Hilary Hahn’s version of the (in)famous Paganini Caprice 24 is like that. Many other performers recite that piece as some sort of showoff event: “Look how wonderful I am!” Very often, this results in robotic performances the point of which is for the musician in question to simply make the audience fall at their feet. These supposed Golden Age renditions remind me of the era of prog and art rock, where the musicians would take the stage in nothing more than an effort to impress the living daylights out of themselves with their own virtuosity. In that case, it doesn’t matter whether I listen — they’ll be just as impressed with themselves if I don’t.
Hahn’s performance is different. Instead, she simply begins tossing the piece off as if it is a light, pretty little confection — which it is! She remembers that it is, first and foremost, a piece of pretty music meant to tell a story, and she is about a quarter through the thing before it becomes evident that she is levitating about 3 feet off of the stage and glowing faintly.
The narrative of the piece when she is playing is the realization on the part of the audience of the full magnitude of just what is going on.
The audience is, in effect, part of the plot. I have to listen when she plays, or else the plot isn’t fulfilled. Hahn’s performance takes the audience on a journey, and that journey is the point of the piece.
For virtuoso pieces like that, I think that is a big part of what the narrative offered by a given musician should be.