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Too Much Information

Are concerts losing their edge because of too much talking from the stage?

by Holly Mulcahy
February 4, 2008

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Too Much Information

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.

Comments (7)


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Telemann from Fairfax VA writes:
February 17, 2008
I'm always stimulated by Holly's pieces because I want to know the musician perspective. She's articulate and one of the few who speaks candidly. However, her sympathetic response to a fellow professional after her last essay, while ignoring my detailed perspective from the audience perspective sends a message. It suggests that she shares the myopia and self absorption of the music establishment since World War II. And that has largely eroded classical music's larger influence in American society. 60 years ago classical radio hosts garnered up to 8 million listeners. Every school child had exposure to classical music - and most popular musicians had training in it. Themes of most popular radio shows were "classical" as were scripts for movies. And even B movies made reference to Chopin, Tchaikovsky.

Had not the establishment relentlessy imposed its bias that nonprofessional audiences and other music consumers were not qualified to hold valid opinions about music, that audiences needed to be "educated" so that they would conform to the prevailing concepts of the avante garde etc., a vibrant stream of new inspiration would have sustained "classical" instead limiting its popular interface to museum pieces - beautiful though they may be.

I see conductors talks to audiences in an entirely different perspective than Holly does from her professional island. With rare exceptions conductors never never spoke to audiences some decades ago. Why not? Because there were formal norms and reverential mystique about "great music. What audiences really thought or felt was less important than the maintaining the aura. Why do conductors talk now? The establishment who has to pay for the halls and the musicians has a less submissive and cowed audience than its counterparts of 25 years ago. All audiences members have the option of hearing a fine-quality performance of any piece in the established repertory at home on CD at a fraction of the price of live concerts.

Getting an opinion of one or two audience members isn't enough, Holly. Open your mind.

Greetings,

Frank M.

Holly Mulcahy from Chicago writes:
February 19, 2008
To Frank M: I sincerely apologize if I inadvertently snubbed you by not referring to one of your comments to my previous articles. I can assure you that certainly was not my intent. Even though I don’t respond to every comment that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and find each comment thoughtful.

As for the issue of conductors talking before every piece I don’t think there’s a universal approach that will work best for everyone. In fact, I think that the sparing approach espoused in my piece is one that will work best. In this way patrons will get to enjoy some interaction with the conductor but not to such a degree that players lose momentum.

Finally, I certainly hope that I didn’t give the impression that I only talk to a few patrons and make sweeping conclusions based on that limited interaction. Instead, the example I presented in this piece is one which represents a career of experience but to include more than one of the most recent instances would make the piece unnecessarily long. As always, I thank you for your interest and for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Sincerely,
Holly

Frank Almond from Marco Island, FL writes:
February 20, 2008
Interesting article. I think the real issues relate to balance, and the actual purpose of speaking from the stage during a concert. By "balance", I mean achieving the elusive goal of enhancing the average person's experience without seeming condescending or pedagogical. That is a difficult task for many conductors (by nature, I think); also not easy for many performers who are used to simply going out and playing.

And why bother, anyway? Your article touches on this- is the primary objective to "teach", or "inform"? If so, I think it usually backfires, especially if the speaker doesn’t convey a certain comfort level. On the other hand, if the goal is to present a more connective and inviting atmosphere to an audience that is often put off by the formality of a "classical" concert (and the program notes they can't read in the dark), then that is something else. Many institutions that have carefully implemented this idea (or expanded upon it) have been quite successful at redefining the format and in turn creating a more meaningful experience for their patrons, whether they know anything about music or not.

I think the problems arise when this idea is not taken seriously enough and the talking just becomes routine, slightly faddish, and really just annoying.




Miss Mussel from Guelph, Ontario writes:
February 22, 2008
Many orchestras I've been to see provide a pre-concert lecture, which I find most enjoyable. There is usually a host interviewing either the conductor or an expert on the subject/theme of the concert.

Occasionally it is just a single lecturer but this works less well as the temptation to geek out is usually too strong. I'm a geek among geeks, so that in itself is not a problem, it's just the dynamic is better with two participants.

I prefer these to speeches from the podium because really, what are you going to say about Shosh 5 in 3 minutes that isn't in the program notes or hasn't been said a thousand times?

The longer format (usually 1/2 hour to 45 minutes) really gives the presenters a chance to delve into a discussion that creates context for the piece(s).

So, to wrap up(!) pre-concert lecture, no podium lecture. I'd rather be swept away in the moment.

Carlos Kalmar from Portland writes:
February 22, 2008
Holly, you have a point! I'm not sure if my perspective is the right one (I'm on stage, I'm one of talkers), but this is what I think: Let's be aware of the fact that most audience members do not read the program book. So there might be lack of information there. On the other hand, several orchestras, the Oregon Symphony is a good example for that, have pre-concert talks. So, if you want some information about the piece and you want to hear the conductor speak, come to those. But I feel that here and there the audience can be "helped" in what is going to be played for them. I don't feel I have to explain Beethoven 5 or the Pathetique. The expectation and familiarity of a large number of audience members is all what it takes to just go on stage and make exceptional music. But here and there we have pieces that you can't hear that often in concert Halls.
So, in essnce, this is a simple rule I try to follow: Limit your remarks!! Don't lecture the audience!! Talk only about pieces where you are sure that the listener could enjoy the piece more if you give a little background. And by background I do not mean the historic circumstances udner which the piece was written. I mean: be personable, make a connection with the listener, and by doing that, establish the connection between the listener and the piece.
The best feedback imaginable is this: The audience is grateful for your words, the orchestra smiles because you were eloquent and brief.
And then, we can all enjoy our concert together!!
Carlos

Ronald Mutchnik from Baltimore, Maryland writes:
May 28, 2008
I was delighted to happen upon your blog Holly and wish you well in Chicago- we miss you at the BCO and if you're ever back in the Baltimore/DC area please do say hello!
As for conductors talking, I do agree that there is a balance that needs to be struck. Like you, I do much more playing of concerts than attending them but I recently got to hear Marin Alsop give a talk about Gershwin prior to Jean Yves Thibaudet playing the Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F. It may have been the nature of Gershwin's music that lent itself to Marin Alsop's pre-concert delivery from the stage but it proved quite effective. Her style was very relaxed yet informative and even though much of what she said was information with which I was already familiar I did not not find myself bored or impatient to get to the music. I think her talk was helped by the use of demonstration from the orchestra and it was clear that she had the audience engaged and eager. I suppose some conductors have a knack for how to do this and not repeat themselves and others fall back on a routine and run on automatic pilot. Such was not the case here fortunately.
I also suppose one has to know one's customers. With our chamber music series in Columbia, Maryland, Sundays at Three, our audience seems to welcome a little bit of information different from that given in the program notes- we always play excerpts to give the audience insight into what we, as performers, are attracted to and find compelling and exciting in the music. I think the audience still retains the sense that they can interpret freely and feel the emotions that naturally spring forth in hearing the music, but they get what I hope is the added pleasure of seeing and hearing the performers' joy and enthusiasm and genuine desire to communicate the meaning they find in the music. Most people respond positively to love and conviction in any public presentation- we are swept up in the joy of living and feel glad to be part of the experience. In the end, it really is all about effective, believable, honest communication.
On a side note, Leonard Bernstein's daughter, in the radio program aired some years back about the life and legacy of Leonard Bernstein, noted that his Young People's Concerts presentations seemed unconsciously geared to her-in the beginning, his presentations were more basic and suited to her then current level of musical knowledge but as she grew up and developed a more sophisticated understanding of music, her father's presentations at those concerts also become more so.
Also, I've noticed some concert series offer a pre-concert lecture instead of a conductor's talk so that those attending who wish to learn more can choose to do so and those who do not simply come to the concert at the usual time after the lecture.
Finally, with some music lover non-musician friends/acquaintances of mine, a week or so prior to an upcoming concert that we'll be attending or that I'll be playing in , I've done little musical soirees where we explore the music in listening sessions with some explanation and demonstration to help the listeners get more out of a piece of music and pique their curiosity to explore and learn further on their own. Given that these evenings occur in a home with food and refreshments offered, the experience becomes a more personal and intimate occasion where one really doesn't feel like one is being lectured to or imposed upon.
Hope you to continue to prosper in Chicago, and I'll look forward to reading more form you as time goes on.
All the best,
Ronald

Rick Robinson from Detroit writes:
May 24, 2010
Thanks Holly for a terrific blog! I will link to it from our website.

I think introducing pieces is a great opportunity to establish INTIMACY with our audiences. A sentence of context, a sentence on the impact of the work, a statement about the particular MODE of building the work uses and a sentence (or two) on the speakers personal feelings while playing the work WITHOUT suggesting any program. Expressive images, metaphors and personal examples of the POWER of such music will draw some audience to deeper enjoyment. I think it's worth the risk.

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