Speaking at concerts
By David Amos
SAN DIEGO–Recently, I was again involved in a lively debate on the subject of whether a conductor or a soloist should or should not speak to the audience before starting a performance. Opinions have varied from enthusiastic support, to comments such as “Never, a conductor should conduct and not say a word. It is not his place to verbalize what is obvious, and it detracts from what is to follow, namely, the music itself.”
My opinions on the subject:
I have conducted many a concert where I felt that not a word was necessary. Let the music speak and communicate on its own. At other times, however, even when program notes were available in the printed handout, a few well-placed comments were apparently well received. Many times after the conclusion of a concert I have heard from enthusiastic concertgoers who told me that whatever I said from the podium provided them with additional perspectives on the music which followed.
Let’s admit it: we, the lovers of classical music, are in the minority and have become a sort of cult. Yes, a healthy cult; we love what we hear and we hear what we love, but we also tend to assume that most other people appreciate what we love. Or at the very least, the ones present at the concert surely know the standard repertory, the artists involved, concert procedure and etiquette, etc. Not so. It may surprise you to hear me say this, but there are concertgoers who may attend a program announced as a rendition of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and if the orchestra switched the program and did nothing else but Strauss waltzes, they may not know the difference! I do not mean a few lost souls in the audience with a minimum amount of brain cells in action, but far more people than you may suspect. This is not meant as a reflection of peoples’ I.Q.s, but as an assessment of the information, sounds, and traditions which you and I may have accumulated through the years, which we assume that everyone around us also possess.
The classical music world has alienated many potential listeners with attitudes of indifference, snobbishness, and closed minds. Even performing artists and composers for many years presented their music with the unspoken message which conveyed, “Here is my music. Take it or leave it; I really don’t care!” In recent times, more composers, artists, and presenters are “changing their tune”, welcome the public, and are grateful for their attendance. There is a greater effort to promote public concerts, with the continuing and alarming dwindling of audiences. Fewer and fewer relate to our precious classical music.
I feel that it is the duty for the ones of us involved in music and music-making not only to do what is traditional of our roles, but to extend ourselves, and educate the public as to what we are doing and of the power, majesty, and pleasures of great music. Forget the days of Arturo Toscanini at Carnegie Hall, or even further back, Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic. These are different times. Classical music is operating under severe handicaps which were not present in the past. We can blame the lack of music education at the schools and parental support at home. Additionally, we are also fighting the very high expenses involved in presenting quality music, competition with many other forms of entertainment with easier instant appeal and shallow glamour. The strain on the world economy and restrictions on disposable incomes make matters far worse. It is a losing battle which many of us refuse to accept.
Maybe it is cyclical, and in the future, with national and world movements reverting to more traditional values in the arts, classical music may have a rebirth of its own. But without our efforts to educate, both in and out of the concert hall, I doubt it.
If a conductor, even one with minimal verbal skills (and I know more than a few of them!), conveys and shares with the audience a few personal insights about the music and gives a comment or two which shed light into either the composer, the work, or the circumstances under which the music was created, it can only enhance the listening experience. It sometimes helps to paint a mental picture of music that can be very abstract, lesser known, and/or complicated.
Brevity is most important. No one goes to a concert hall or recital to get a lecture and hear the performer enjoying the sound of his or her own voice. This can be dreadful. But I personally welcome a few well placed observations. It humanizes the experience. Therefore, there is no reason for letting a few words spoil the experience.
So, next time you are at a concert, any concert, if the conductor starts to speak and you find yourself somewhat annoyed, think of the people seated around you. Those few words may motivate some of them to return to the next concert, and that is to all our benefit.
Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra in San Diego and has guest conducted numerous professional orchestras around the world.