Friday, July 23, 2010

On not presenting concerts badly

I've had occasion in this blog to be critical of the writings of Greg Sandow, who blogs about the "ossification" and "irrelevance" of today's classical music scene, and how he thinks we can fix those problems. There are some fundamental issues on which I will never agree with Sandow. He thinks that classical music should become more like the general non-classical culture (as though that culture were exempt from criticism, and as though it weren't defined and shaped precisely by its relationship with the art of the past). More specifically, he thinks that classical music needs to emulate the musical language and presentation of pop music, which is a non-starter - the two forms are distinct, and serve different social functions. Luckily, there is little chance of such an outlook being accepted by practicing musicians - no-one could perform a Mozart piano sonata in public if they truly believed that the music was irrelevant and that everyone in the audience would prefer to be watching television.

Occasionally, though, Sandow hits upon an extremely important point, as here:
And there's something brain-dead about the way classical music presents itself. My favorite example: the instrumentation of orchestral works, as dutifully listed in orchestra concert programs. ("Three flutes, one doubling piccolo, three oboes, one doubling English horn, three clarinets, one doubling E flat clarinet and one doubling bass clarinet...") At least in our big orchestras, these lists don't correspond with what the audience sees on stage. The composer wrote the piece for four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones, but what's on stage are five horns, three trumpets, and four trombones.

Why? Because the principal horn and trumpet have the royal privilege of not playing some of the ensemble passages in their parts, so they can save themselves for their solos. An extra player sits on stage to play those passages. The top trombone part will sound better, in soft music, with two players on it instead of two [sic].

These are fascinating details of orchestral life. But they're never explained to the audience. And meanwhile the instrumentation lists -- night after night, week after week, year after year -- don't correspond to what the whole world can see on stage, and nobody seems to care. If that doesn't show a disconnect between classical music and the world -- even with its own world! -- I don't know what does. We've ossified. We've forgotten that we're a group of people, doing things for other people, who may have thoughts about what we do, and may notice discrepancies in what we present.
I think Sandow overstates his case. Any institution with a distinct culture is going to develop characteristic jargon that newcomers find difficult to understand. To a reader who can make sense of an orchestral score, those "two trumpets" signify two trumpet parts, not two trumpet players. These sorts of disconnects between the layperson and the professional are hardly specific to classical music.

But the broader point still applies: if you're going to present music to an audience, you should think carefully about what you're doing. If the way you present music leaves the audience with unanswered questions (like why there are three trumpets instead of two), you should do your best to answer them. And if you're going to give your audience a programme booklet to read, it should sufficiently well-produced to be worth reading.

Frankly, inconsistencies in instrumentation are the least of the problems in most concert programmes. Biographies of famous conductors and soloists often fill an entire page in the programme, but no-one would ever read them because they consist entirely of small-print lists of awards received and recent performance venues, presented in a manner that makes the "begat" lists in the Old Testament look like Reader's Digest. Programme notes vary widely in every aspect except for the quality of their writing, which is rarely better than mediocre. Composers contribute arcane analyses of their works which cannot be understood without following a published score. Harried interns, told to produce a brief note on some canonical composition, produce a patchwork of incorrect facts, apocryphal stories and dubious attempts at interpretation, all culled from Wikipedia. Well-intentioned performers describe their current repertoire in language that assumes advanced musical background, all the while failing to mention any element of the piece that a lay audience would find interesting. Then there are the performers who want to "help" their audience to learn more about classical music by stopping to define such musical terms as "Baroque" and "scale," so that everyone in the audience is either insulted or confused.

(I forbear to mention those performers who stand up in between pieces and read their programme notes word for word, even though the audience has already had time to read the notes, several times, while waiting for the concert to begin. This goes beyond mere negligence into the realm of actual evil.)

The great difficulty here is striking that golden mean where the audience can understand you but doesn't feel that you're insulting their intelligence. This problem isn't specific to programme notes, but applies to concert programming in general and to the question of whether to talk before a concert. A performer needs a frank appraisal from colleagues or friends if he's going to write his own programme notes or speak during a concert: is your writing good enough to offer for public appraisal? If not, how can it be improved? Are your spoken remarks between pieces concise, witty and informative, or do you ramble for twenty minutes, unaware that your audience wishes you were dead?

The other aspect of presentation is figuring out what an audience of non-musicians finds interesting. This will vary widely within a given room, of course. But it's a major problem for organists, who spend a lot of time thinking about issues that laymen don't care about - registration, articulation, key touch, and details of performance practice. On the other hand, details of the work's history that may seem somewhat arcane are often of considerable interest - things like the circumstances under which the work was written, and the ways it might connect to more famous events in history. Trial and error is the only way to find these things out.

There are many other ways to ruin your audience's lives using programme notes, but the above will have to do until the official formation of an Anti-Awful Programme Note Guild.

1 comment:

Andrew W. said...

Although I think Mr. Sandow's example isn't a good one, and your point is more trenchant, it does come back to the idea that classical music needs to be talked about as much as it needs to be heard.

Not to beat a dead horse, but my biggest beef with CBC's overhaul of Radio 2 was always that they were sacrificing intelligent conversation for playing music all the time.

So I couldn't agree more that there is probably nothing worse for someone new to classical music than obscure and/or poorly written program notes!

But then what's the solution? I hate to say this, and I'm sure Mr. Sandow has (I can't read to the end of most of his posts...) but maybe some kind of intelligent MC would help - Alec Baldwin and the New York Philharmonic strikes me as one of these kinds of partnerships.

But all of this speaks to the need for a culture of writing about music that is as practiced and subtle as the performance itself.