A reader writes:
You recently mentioned “snobbery” in your blog:
I can’t think of many things I loathe more than the hyper-aggressive snobbery whose effect–perhaps even its purpose–is to frighten away well-meaning people who want to dip their toe into the pool of beauty for the first time.
Question: Do you believe in pre-concert audience talks? I’m not talking about those pre-concert lectures which some concerts and operas offer (like my Houston Grand Opera), which take some time before the show, in a special room, to discuss the piece in detail. They might be great, but my wife and I are too busy grabbing a bite before the show.
I’m talking about when the conductor comes to the podium, turns to the audience, and says a few words about the piece just before playing it. Do you think this would be a good or bad thing to do?
My personal opinion is that it would double orchestra attendance overnight.
I couldn’t agree more–if the conductor in question can talk. Some can, some can’t. One who can is Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, who has an uncanny knack for getting his audiences on the side of difficult new music by chatting about it in a direct and engaging way from the podium. Needless to say, it helps that Thomas is also a great conductor who has turned the San Francisco Symphony into one of America’s top orchestras. And all things being equal, I’d rather hear a good performance by a mute conductor than a fair performance by a talkative conductor. But all things aren’t equal anymore, and it seems to me that conductors who can’t talk as well as Thomas would do well to learn how–or hire speechwriters. Sure, it’d be nice if they wrote their own speeches, but talent is not apportioned equally or logically, and the ability to write a good pre-concert talk probably isn’t found on the same chromosome as the ability to conduct Beethoven.
I just finished reading the galleys of a new biography of Alfred Hitchcock. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, whose episodes he used to introduce in the driest, drollest manner imaginable. Well, Hitchcock didn’t write those introductions. They were written for him by a witty playwright named James Allardice, the same fellow who knocked out his after-dinner speeches. Hitchcock just read them–brilliantly–and they helped make him a star in his own right.
Me, I think all musicians, classical and non-classical alike, should talk to their audiences. If I ran a conservatory, I’d require every student to take a class in public speaking. Failing that, though, I think a little discreet ghostwriting might prove to be a shrewd investment in the future of classical music in America.