The music of Olympic figure skating isn't what it could be

From the silver screen: Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy will skate to the "Out of Africa" soundtrack.
From the silver screen: Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy will skate to the "Out of Africa" soundtrack. (Ivan Sekretarev/associated Press)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

When the exquisite Soviet figure skating pair Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov took the ice for their free-skate program at the 1988 Winter Olympics, they bounded off to the rousing lilt of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 ("Italian"): music that matched their lyricism, drive and evident weightlessness as they flew across the ice. Suddenly, though, the music segued into Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 -- one arcing jump was perfectly timed to an ornamental figure in the piano -- and then into a tacky instrumental arrangement of Chopin's "Revolutionary" etude.

The 4 1/2 minutes of their program included five pieces of music, ending with the overture to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" kitted out with a subtle disco beat. Their skating performance was perhaps one of the greatest in history. But the music itself, as music, was kind of a mess.

Fast forward to 2010. Going into the pairs competition at the Vancouver Olympics, which starts Sunday, the top-ranked skaters (despite a second-place finish at the European championships in January) are Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany. They are skating their free-skate program to a single piece of music. To a music lover, the effect is much less jarring than Gordeeva and Grinkov's patchwork. But the music isn't as good: It's from the "Out of Africa" film soundtrack.

Music for skating has never been noted for its quality. Fans are accustomed to kitschy arrangements, abrupt cuts and sub-par sound systems. Yet over the years, in part because of the improvement in technology, there's been a shift away from random juxtapositions toward programs that are at least thematic (the American Ryan Bradley played an 18th-century gentleman at the U.S. championships in a free-skate program that was variously labeled "Amadeus-Mozart medley" and "Baroque medley," and ranged from Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" to Bach's "Air on the G String") and at best have some musical integrity (Jeremy Abbott, the U.S. champion, is skating to an excerpted movement from Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3).

"The editing is better," says Audrey Weisiger, a coach at the Fairfax Ice Arena who twice led the U.S. Olympic team and coached three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss. "People now don't mix genres. Our tastes are probably more sophisticated; our technology is better." But the content remains variable.

Athleticism or art?

Music epitomizes the uneasy line that figure skating has long tried to walk between athleticism and art. Do you want a skater who creatively interprets the music and gives an ethereal, memorable performance? Or one who can nail all the jumps? The answer has never been clear.

That tension was brought into the spotlight at the 2002 Winter Games, when Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze beat the Canadian pair of Jamie Salé and David Pelletier because their marks for "presentation" (the art part) overshadowed the Canadians' clear win on "technical merit," because a French judge was coerced into skewing her vote.

The resulting controversy sparked a massive overhaul of the rules and judging system in 2004. Yet even under the new system, which involves minute scrutiny (with replays) of each technical element involved in a program, a part of the final total includes marks for choreography and interpretation -- the "art" part of the equation, which directly relates to the musical selection.

Initially, the new rules inspired skaters with a new sense of caution. Skaters are "starting to use music that is repetitive and has less definition than it used to have," Weisiger says. "A lot of programs now use music that sounds the same over and over, kind of drones on and on."

But Weisiger doesn't think the new rules are the whole problem. It's "also a new generation of choreographers," she says, who "don't have the same appreciation for classical music."

Even for those who do want to improve the musical level of the sport, there are limits to what you can do in less than five minutes, especially when you're working with a skater, a choreographer and a coach who may all have their own ideas of what they want.

"The problem is that these people don't know any music," says music writer David Hurwitz, who established a small side business on his CD-reviewing Web site, Classics Today, to advise figure skaters on their musical choices. Skaters tend to cling to what has done well before: "Carmen," in various permutations, tops a list that includes a heavy dose of Russian ballet and dance music ("Swan Lake," "Scheherazade") and Spanish-themed works.

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