Last night's concert started off just like any other concert; the lights went down, the orchestra tuned, and the conductor came out bowed to the audience. What happened next caught me by surprise. Immediately after the conductor took his bow he assertively turned to the orchestra and gave the downbeat. What resulted was an energy in the hall that was driven by anticipation followed by a feeling of relief when the first phrase of music was completed.
This might not seem like an unusual event but in the last several years of my career I have watched conductor after conductor come out after the orchestra tunes and not turn to the orchestra after the bow; instead, they talk to (or at) the audience. At one point in time, there was a genuine need to bridge a nearly tangible gap between the stage and seats, so it became very fashionable for conductors to talk to the members of the audience. Managements all over were pushing conductors to adopt this technique to make the performance more accessible.
At first, I rather liked the welcoming talks but I could tell it frustrated some of my colleagues on stage. Right after tuning, it is nice to keep playing so one doesn't get cold or out of focus. Unfortunately, as more conductors adopt talking to the audience the talks have gotten longer and longer and now I practically expect an extra five minutes of cramming fingering passages in my head or going over tricky rhythms quietly while the chat continued. At worst, I have to work at maintaining a look of interest during even the most crushingly dull talks.
But what was so spectacular about last night was it seemed so refreshing to just get to the music. What a joy it was to have the anticipation of great music followed by immediate gratification! As I watched the audience being lulled into the first few notes, from my vantage, they seemed to not miss the chit-chat beforehand.
I spoke to my colleagues at intermission to mention how nice it was to just "go" and they couldn't have agreed more. One of colleagues said "Sometimes, I just wish they'd bring that giant vaudeville stage hook back and pull the yackers off the stage! It really is embarrassing!"
Well, maybe it's embarrassing when the speaker is talking about something obvious or simply circling around the same point. Maybe conductors don't understand the depth of their own knowledge, get wrapped up with how great a work is, and want to share every last (boring) detail to the audience. At that point it turns into a stuffy academic lecture and indeed becomes embarrassing.
On the other hand, I've experienced a number of good talks. These are typically eloquent, short speeches that are particularly effective when they focus on a new work. All of this can be crucial for an audience to understand or enjoy the piece. But there is a fine line between useful information and the time wasting, energy sapping chit-chat that eats away at my colleagues' nerves.
All of this makes me wonder why program notes aren't sufficient. Perhaps conductors should be expected to write the program notes since they are going to end up talking to the audience about the piece anyway or perhaps conductors should be expected to talk to the audience about something that would otherwise be covered in the program notes. Since I don't attend concerts as a listener nearly as often as I do as a performer, I can't really say.
Several years ago, I invited some nonmusical friends to my concert of Shostakovich Symphony 5. Beforehand, I gave the couple a CD so they could have a listen before the live performance. I didn't really want to bore them with my "vast" knowledge of the work, composer's miserable life, or why it is significant in history. That was in the program notes with the CD, which I encouraged them to read. If they had any questions after that or wanted more info, I told them to feel free to ask.
After the concert, I was eager to hear how they liked the performance.
"It was fine, sounded like the recording," said one friend.
That was it? I wanted to ask if they were moved by such a powerful and important work but my other friend started into her experience.
"We listened to the CD, and purposely chose not to read the jacket," she said. "We felt we wanted to listen on a blank slate, gather our own conclusions and see if more explanation was necessary. Having lost a friend to cancer earlier this month, I felt that the first movement expressed every possible emotion that I felt. The last movement to me was a sheer powerful force that beckoned me into wanting to live life to the fullest and enjoy every bit since my friend was no longer able to."
I was touched by her response and it sounded perfectly logical, so I asked the first friend why he had such a mediocre reaction.
"Well, the conductor gave too much information before the concert," he said. "He gave us historical facts that were interesting, and probably to a few in the audience, it was important. But for us, it took away our own personal meaning. We felt like ‘our piece' was no longer ours. Plus if we wanted a lengthy history lesson, well you know."
There have been occasions where too much information has ruined pieces for me as well. But likewise, many pieces have been enhanced by a little explanation. And last night I found myself wondering if the general audience feels the same as me. I wonder if they sit and wish a conductor would stop talking or if they are grateful to have a 30 second explanation of a crazy piece.
Looking at my time as an orchestra musician I've witnessed the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other with regard to engaging the audience verbally at the beginning of a concert. It seems to me that neither extreme is very useful; instead, it is time for orchestras to analyze how much they push their maestros to talk. Are they doing it just because some other conductor or orchestra does it and have they done any research with their own audience to determine what they respond to best? My observations say things typically work best if a conductor talks sparingly and if what I hear from conductor friends is representative of most conductors, sparingly is preferred.