I went to an orchestra concert recently, excited to hear a world-class orchestra playing a program by one of my favorite composers. The featured soloist was legendary, and the concert-hall was second to none. This was going to be a program I wouldn’t soon forget.
Beforehand, there was a pre-concert presentation given by a faculty member who taught music theory at a nearby university.
“The form of the first movement is a hybrid between sonata and ritornello,” he said. And he went on to explain the movement’s key relationships, pointing out many of the unusual structural elements in the work. He had graphs and charts, with colored pencil markings and really interesting shapes which we watched while he played excerpts on the sound-system. It was all nicely organized in a Power-Point presentation. There were pictures of composers, music notated in Finale, and references to other works by the same composer and his contemporaries.
As we exited the room and entered the concert hall, I listened carefully to the comments around me. They were brutally honest. “I didn’t get it,” one said. “I thought I knew something about music, but I guess I’m wrong. That was a waste of time,” sighed a quiet, disappointed voice.
What had just happened that had failed their hopes and expectations so miserably?
Sometimes I challenge young musicians to try to discuss music without using the terminology they have learned. I’ll tell them they can use metaphor, but they have to avoid the words they have come to rely upon. They can’t use exposition, recapitulation, da capo, modulation, or sequence. No sonata, no ternary, no rondo. They immediately freeze, because, without a shared vocabulary there isn’t a way forward. They become mute. After a few moments, they laugh – followed by, “This is hard!”
As field, we either talk down to audiences, or we assume they have the same knowledge base as we do. There’s a good rule to live by here. The moment someone feels stupid, they check out. It’s over. Think “audience churn” – and you haven’t even played the first note!
You would think that a pre-concert talk would always help us build and retain audiences. But we should HEAR that talk as if we were attending for the first time. What if, in our good intentions, we’ve inadvertently convinced new audiences that they can’t possibly enjoy the evening’s music?
Imagine you buy a ticket to hear a concert. You arrive early to learn whatever you can to help you really, intensely benefit from the performance. Now, try to really HEAR this sentence, “The form of the first movement is a hybrid between sonata and ritornello.”
What do you actually have to KNOW to enjoy the scent of a rose?
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t teach, but it might serve to remind ourselves who is listening.
What if we first gave a pre-concert talk to some non-musicians and had them keep notes on the points in our presentation where we had lost them? I’ve done that. It’s humbling, to say the least. You learn a lot about what doesn’t work.
And figuring out what isn’t working is already a good start.
Oh, and by the way, it isn’t really a hybrid between sonata and ritornello. Actually, its a typical double exposition you would expect in any classical concerto of the late 18th Century, except that the second theme modulates even in the first, orchestral exposition. THAT’s rare, although it is surely due to the fact that this concerto is in the minor mode. You would think that instead of modulating from the minor tonic to the major mediant for the second subject, he would choose to use the parallel tonic and simply present the second theme in the major mode, reserving the actual modulation to the mediant for the second, soloist exposition. And that makes you wonder what he might do in the recapitulation: modulate again, or present everything in tonic – first theme in minor, and the second one in the parallel major? After all, he HAS to end in the home tonic, right? So I don’t really buy the “hybrid between sonata and ritornello” argument anyway.
I hope you’re laughing right now.