I’ve been getting e-mail by the ton, it seems — and from people passionately concerned with the issues I’ve discussed here. I want to put my own ideas aside for a bit, and let my correspondents speak. I expect to do this regularly, and I must say that my notion of this blog is changing. It’s much more an exchange of ideas than I ever dared to hope. (And don’t miss the answers Tobi Tobias got, when she asked why dancers like to dance.)
From Robert Wilder Blue, vivid thoughts about musicians talking to the audience:
I attend the San Francisco Symphony’s concerts at which not only Michael Tilson Thomas but guest conductors speak from the podium on a regular basis. I can tell you that after MTT introduces a piece such as Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, one can sense the audience leaning forward and actually listening to the music. What could be better for classical music? The phenomenon of MTT and SFS and its audience has been well documented so I don’t need to go on about that. What I will highlight is the utter breaking down of pretension that occurs when the conductor (or a musician) turns to speak to the audience. It makes the concert experience more of a dialogue than a lecture. It also tells the audience why the orchestra has bothered to program the piece and what the audience might find compelling or interesting about it. Finally, it puts the audience on the spot, reminding them that they have come to the concert to listen to the music.
(And check out his web magazine on opera.)
Roger Saydack, most provocatively, starts from the idea of musicians talking, but goes far beyond that:
Here is a rather jaded view for you about why this has become a big deal in recent years. Talking to the audience is important to many audience members because most classical performers play for themselves, not really for the audience. The role of the audience, for these performers, is to admire what the performer creates. They don’t really think about the performance as a means of enabling audience members to participate in the creative process — becoming involved in the art like you do in a good movie.
Many musicians see their role as creating for the audience beautiful, tradition-bound performances that are like objects for the audience to admire. Almost like Ukrainian Easter eggs. When the performer says a few words about why this music he is about to play has meaning for him, or how or why it was written, at least he is communicating with those words something that might be personal, revealing or in other ways significant, and people love it because it gives them something to relate to, even if the performance does not. Listen to most big name pianists play Chopin, for example — how many times does the performance open up the music for you. Usually what you observe is the careful creation of a beautiful, refined object. There is a big difference between the two experiences — the difference between art and fashion.
Think of how stiff the public presentation of most classical music is — how much it is actually designed to suppress emotion, feeling, communication. The stage at the far end of the hall – the conductor’s podium separating her from the players — no talking, no audience emotion during the music — the players are trained to show no emotion when they play — and the acoustics that in most every hall conceal many of those things in the score and the performance that give added depth and meaning to the music and keep the audience from being part of the physical sound of the music. Small wonder that a few words from the stage can open up the experience for the audience — hey, that’s a real person up there, who knows I’m out here and he has something to say to me with this music.…
A quick example of an orchestra that does things right — the Berlin Philharmonic. At their concerts you even see, as opposed to just hear, the signs of a real, live artistic experience made for the audience you are a part of — they warm up in the wings and walk on stage together, face the audience and bow together (they know who you are, why you are there, and they are ready to play for you). They play with physical, visible passion — moving and swaying (unlike most American orchestras, these players look deeply and emotionally engaged in making music). You can see how alert, responsive to the conductor and quick they are (like fine athletes who are doing their best for you and the music), and at the end of the concert they look at you, bow, and each player shakes hands with the player next to him (it is a collaborative effort — with each other and with you).
Talking to the audience is good; playing for them is better.