Talk to Me

A fairly recent trend in how performers present music in concert is for the performer to give a verbal introduction to the music from the stage. I say "fairly recent" even though many years ago I attended an all-Schoenberg recital by the great Paul Jacobs, who, after a somewhat tepid reception to the first piece, drew his hands away from the piano just before beginning to play the next work, and gave brief talk that had the audience in rapt attention for the rest of the difficult program.

This now-more-prevalent practice has not been welcomed by everyone. Critic Andrew Clark of The Financial Times wrote this mostly-critical piece, wherein remarks from the podium are called representative of "insidious" thinking about concert music on the part of presenters who "fear that classical music may not be sufficiently communicative or 'entertaining'. Mr. Clark goes on to say that "[y]ou don’t have to explain jazz to anybody" (!) and that concert music needs no explanation. Thanks to A. C. Douglas for pointing out this piece and pulling some of the more negative quotes from it.

Mr. Clark says that discussion of the music from the stage:

. . . limits the imaginative scope of the music. Listening to someone discussing a piece of music before you have a chance to hear it pre-programmes your responses. The music has no chance to communicate freely. You are left with a number of objective ideas about what to think and feel, circumscribing the subjective impressions that music seeks to create in the listener through the medium of sound.

This is not inherently true, anymore than reading program notes or having prior knowledge of the piece restrict the listening experience. Every experience one has with a given composition, composer, style, or body of music (maybe even bad experiences) adds to the totality of one's musical knowledge.

Mr. Clark closes:

Of course, it doesn’t do to be too purist. I recall several occasions at the Cheltenham festival in the past 10 years when festival director Michael Berkeley introduced a concert from the podium. He happens to be a composer but, unlike most composers, he is also a relaxed public speaker. He thinks as a composer does, but knows what information will be most relevant in advance. Exceptionally the formula worked. But please note - it was the exception.

Exactly so.

Mr. Clark makes a number of valid points against the practice, the most telling of which is that not everyone is good at it. I like brief, well thought-out remarks before the performance of a piece, especially if these remarks are accompanied by musical examples. But I don't want to hear it from performers who can't, for whatever reason, do it well. Come to think of it, I don't want to hear music played by people who can't do it well, but I'm not about to condemn the practice of live performance of music just because some people who do it don't do it very well.

No comments:

Post a Comment