On Showmanship

In the world of classical music, showmanship is often frowned upon. People tend to think that artists who spend a lot of time working on their presentation are ones who need to make up for less talent on the musical side of things.

While it’s true that many classical artists and groups these days have gotten good at matching brilliant musicianship with presentation flair, I still attend some concerts where the presentation is so mediocre that it affects my appreciation of the music.

Such, sadly, was the case a couple of evenings ago when I went to the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco to catch a program of sad love songs performed by the great English a cappella consort, The Hilliard Ensemble.

I have never before seen this vocal group live, though I have long appreciated its fine, balanced sound and peerless facility for singing very old and very new material. Officium, Hilliard’s 1994 collaboration with saxophonist Jan Gabarek is one of the best and most listened to recordings in my music collection.

From a musical perspective, I still got a lot out of the program. The group has such a good blend and they captured just the right balance between sadness and rapture in such pieces as Jean Courtois’ “Si Par Souffrir” and Clement Janequin’s “O Mal D’Aimer”. I would have rather heard the four movements of the modern Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn’s rich yet desolate Four Sonnets for Four Voices sung in immediate succession rather than spliced between various airs by the 15th century French composer Philipppe Caron. The effect of bouncing backwards and forwards through time rather disrupted the flow and mood of the Kelterborn. But in general, the music was beautiful.

The group’s members were a lot less successful, however, in presenting themselves. Part of the problem was the look of the stage. For acoustic reasons (I imagine) the singers were forced to sing in front of a set of ugly plasterboard panels which blocked the audience’s view of the Herbst Theatre’s handsome proscenium stage. The fact that the singers stood behind music stands also presented difficulties. They appeared partly masked and removed from us as a result. I would have thought that a group of this caliber would know its music from memory, quite frankly.

The singers’ dress sense was all wrong too — dour grey suits with an assortment of uninspiring charcoal colored shirts (as pictured above). They looked like a bunch of undertakers. The final straw was that the performers hardly ever cracked a smile and rarely seemed to glance at the people who’d come out in the rain and paid quite a bit of money to see them. Unsurprisingly, the applause between numbers was at best lukewarm. Sometimes, no one clapped at all.

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  1. Frank Daykin says

    I don’t think it’s that “black and white.” I believe that what anyone in any audience is looking for from an arts event is emotional truth on stage, whether that be from actors, dancers, or imstrumental/vocal musicians. Our age is far too visual and the listening sense is “weak” for most people, even highly educated appreciators. Thus, we add all kinds of visual crutches and then “accuse” a group of being frumpy if their visual appeal is low or de-emphasized . . .

  2. Rob Flax says

    @ Frank: Thanks for your comment. I look forward to starting a dialogue on this topic. In my mind, it comes down to what the expectations are for the performers. Are they ‘artists’? Or are they ‘entertainers?’ Just ‘interpreters,’ or ‘performers?’ It is my firm belief that people attend any concert for a multisensory experience, not just the sonic pleasure.
    While I agree that most audience members are ‘stronger’ visually than with their ears, I do not agree that giving an audience something to look at is a visual ‘crutch.’ Demanding that the audience sit quietly in a warm, dark concert hall with comfortably upholstered chairs is an easy recipe for a nap. Ignoring this is absolutely ‘frumpy,’ in my opinion.
    Don’t forget that the concert etiquette practiced today is a carry-over from the last three hundred years of music listening, which prior to the invention of the phonograph at the start of the 1900’s was entirely live performance.
    Why do people come to a live performance now, instead of listening to a recording of the same work at home? Usually the sound quality is fantastic on CD’s of masterworks, so that can’t be it. Indeed, the one saving grace of classical music, as well as jazz and other art forms, is the emotional intensity live performance, much of which is conveyed through body language and visual cues. There’s an energy present on stage when, well, the artist has some stage presence! That’s the element missing from listening at home.
    The real question, I think, is: “What does it mean to have good stage presence?” The answer is, “whatever keeps the audience engaged in the music.” That may be playing with no movement at all, but an intense look of concentration on the soloist’s face will say it all. It could also mean flailing about like Jimmy Page, but either works if done well.
    It could certainly be argued that the artist has the right to ignore the audience, focusing entirely on the artistry of performance. However, they need to do so in such a way that the audience picks up on it!

  3. says

    thanks for weighing in, rob
    you raise some important a subtle points
    a performance to my mind is indeed more than pure musicianship
    it’s about creating an experience
    today i was at a cecilia bartoli recital in berkeley
    all bartoli did, from an overall perspective, was stand there and sing
    but her communication with the audience was extremely intense
    she used her entire body and face to convey the meaning of the words she was singing
    she had a great rapport with her accompanist
    by the time the audience finally let her go, she’d given us five encores
    now that’s what i call a performance!