Thursday, June 4, 2009

The lost art of pre-concert patter

I've been thinking about a recent poll over on Tim Mangan's blog, asking how people feel about performers talking to the audience at concerts. You'll hear a wide variety of opinions if you ask classical musicians about this particular topic. Greg Sandow famously advocates it as a method of establishing a personal rapport with the audience. Others are bored to tears during pre-concert lectures, and wish the performers would shut up and play their kazoo or whatever.

Now, I sympathize with those who groan when performers start to talk at concerts; indeed, some of my most squirm-inducing concert experiences have been listening to musicians talk instead of perform. The choral conductor who rambles for twenty minutes about why a Presbyterian church choir will be performing this Requiem Mass in Latin instead of English, the pianist who recounts insipid personal anecdotes before setting into a Beethoven sonata, the innumerable composers who gabber in mind-numbing detail about the technical features of their new work: I've heard them all. I feel your pain.

Yet I myself have often been guilty of talking before pieces at my own recitals, particularly when introducing a contemporary piece, and have twice been invited to give commentary at other people's concerts. People often comment that they enjoy these talks before concerts; unless they are simply being polite, which is quite possible, I've hit upon a formula which seems to work. I generally try to adhere to the following seven rules:

1) Never, under any circumstances, talk for more than five minutes at a musical performance.
2) Never extemporize, neither read off a prepared sheet, but have a prospectus of your talk in point form. This allows you to maintain a sense of spontaneity while preventing you from going completely off the rails.
3) Never use technical vocabulary.
4) Never duplicate the programme notes. This is good manners, but also a matter of hedging one's bets; the audience may be bored by your speaking, your performance, or your notes, but it's statistically unlikely that they will be bored by all three at once.
5) Never take yourself too seriously.
6) Never talk about yourself for more than ten seconds.
7) Never use a pre-concert talk to apologize for your performance decisions.

There are about fifty-seven thousand exceptions to any set of rules such as this, but if everyone followed them we would, at the very least, be spared listening to the worst pre-concert offenders at any great length.

I provide the following example from Hilaire Belloc as an example of what I mean. Very few people today could pull off Belloc's inimitable style, but this introduction is a perfect example of the craft: brief, concise, and humorous. Observe:
I am here to take the chair in the debate between two men whom you desire to hear more than you could possibly desire to hear me. They will debate whether they agree or do not agree. From what I know of attempts at agreement between human beings there is a prospect of a very pretty fight. When men debate agreement between nations then you may be certain a disastrous war is on the horizon. I make an exception for the League of Nations, of which I know nothing. If the League of Nations could make a war it would be the only thing it ever has made.

I do not know what Mr. Chesterton is going to say. I do not know what Mr. Shaw is going to say. If I did I would not say it for them. I vaguely gather from what I have heard that they are going to try to discover a principle: whether men should be free to possess private means, as is Mr. Shaw, as is Mr. Chesterton; or should be, like myself, an embarrassed person, a publishers' hack. I could tell them; but my mouth is shut. I am not allowed to say what I think. At any rate, they are going to debate this sort of thing. I know not what more to say. They are about to debate. You are about to listen. I am about to sneer.
from a debate between G. K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, 1926.


Andrew W. said...

I think one could also extend the lost art of pre-concert chatter to the broader loss of oratory...

I often like hearing musicians talk about their music. Indeed, it's probably one of the things I miss most about the "old" CBC Radio 2, the lack of talk.

Maybe it's because I disdain of the whole "dance monkey, dance!" perception of performers, that somehow being in the arts excludes one from having nice thoughts on all sorts of other things, let alone their own art.

Alice said...

I'd add to your list:
Never speak to just the first few rows.

Never make some audience members feel left out by using in-jokes.