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.


Top 10

This blog has been selected by the editors of Top 10 Sources for their group of 10 classical music resources. The site includes top 10 sources in a wide array of subjects from "Business & Money" through "Life" to "Television".

I appreciate the editors adding listen. to their site, and I welcome visitors directed here from there.

I've added Top 10 Classical Music Sources to the "Links" on the sidebar.


Chicago Classical Music

Several arts organizations in Chicago have started a blog/forum called Chicago Classical Music. It is billed as "An Online Community for Classical Music Enthusiasts". Despite their questionable judgement in listing this blog on their blogroll, the site looks promising.

I've added it to the Links section.



An article from Bloomberg.com about Finnsh composer/conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen and his travails with the postponed-then-performed world first of Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater includes this:

Also unusual is the clear narrative form of "Adriana Mater,'' in a continental context where new operas are generally modernist deconstructions.

"This is not a post-modern, distanced view of the very idea of opera,'' says Salonen. "It's an opera which absolutely believes in the art of opera, a simple story told in a linear way. It is a statement of faith in the fact that opera is an art form which can deal with big emotions and huge subjects. I'm very tired of the modernist idea that there are things you should not do because they are against the historic determinist paradigm or the Hegelian dialectical idea.''

Note that the writer of the article says that AM is not “modernist” because it has a “clear narrative form” and Mr. Salonen says it’s not “post-modern” because it’s a “simple story told in a linear way” and that he is tired of the "modernist" view of opera, which he says rejects linear story-telling. Mr. Salonen doesn't say he is also tired of modernism. His disavowal of modernism for AM seems like a continuation of his disavowal of pomo.

The issue here for me is not whether Ms. Saariaho’s opera is “modernist” or “postmodernist” but rather the use of those terms as a shibboleth to identify one as being among friends or as club with which to beat upon one’s enemies. In any case, it’s clear that there’s not clarity about what modernism is and what post-modernism’s relationship to it is.

And vice versa.

* * * * *

While we're on the subject of postmodernism, I recently read Christopher Butler's Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction and am now reading Glenn Ward's Teach Yourself Postmodernism. The two authors take very different approaches, with Mr. Butler adopting a very skeptical stance and Mr. Ward a more sympathetic yet questioning posture.

Neither writer has much to say about music. Even given that, I can highly recommend them both.

Reading both of these books and thinking about the ideas and issues involved made me thinkof this story from Silence:

Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things are confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, "What is the difference between before and after?" He said, "No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground."


Alex Ross, A. C. Douglas, and Lisa Hirsch are having a spirited discussion of some issues raised by Steve Metcalf on increasing the audience for concert music. The ground has been covered pretty well, so I don't have any big points to add. I do think the iPod/soundtrack-of-my-life model of music consumption/listening does need to be addressed by concert music folks; I'm just not sure how.

On the idea of a need for a superstar composer or a composer as a household name cultural hero, it's not going to happen. If the hype around the user-friendly music of John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov hasn't made it happen for them, it isn't going to happen for anybody. I'm not sure it would be so good if it did.

On the other hand, I'd like to see some performers who excel at a variety of contemporary styles become big name cultural heroes. Dawn Upshaw immediately comes to mind. Are there others?



I've added what is supposed to be a mini-banner leading to the just-launched Polyphonic.org, a website whose aim is to provide orchestral musicians with information about the business. listen.'s crack technology staff is working overtime to fix the picture banner. In the meantime, the link works.

[EDIT: The banner is fixed.]


Out There

Charles T. Downey of ionarts has a round-up of the early reviews of Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater, which premiered Monday evening in Paris, after a four-day delay due to labor unrest. Alex Ross' take on the opera is still to come. EDIT: Here it is.

Marcus Maroney and Lisa Hirsch take on Bernard Holland of the New York Times, with examples and suggestions, while A. C. Douglas offers a defense-by-assertion of the critic.

I've added former Tallahasseean Tim Risher to the blogroll.