Talking to the audience

I’ve been e-mailing with someone who, among other things, thinks many more people would go to classical concerts if musicians talked to the audience. And of course this is happening, though more at family concerts and events aimed at new listeners than at, let’s say, the core subscription concerts of an orchestra. It’s also true that innovations like this one tend to divide the audience. Older, more conservative people, and long-time concertgoers might not like them; younger people and new concertgoers welcome the change, which they might feel makes concerts livelier, friendlier, and more communicative.

But one thing does strike me. Anyone who comes to classical music after hearing jazz or pop more or less expects musicians to talk. Or at least to say hello, and introduce the members of the band. So why won’t a string quartet introduce itself? In a way, this seems discourteous. And I did once hear a string quartet do it, at a new music event. It seemed utterly natural and right. Of course, new music concerts are usually much more informal than mainstream classical performances, and this string quartet was dressed in normal clothes. If they’d been wearing tails, I don’t know how their talking would have come off.

My correspondent even thinks conductors should talk to the audience from the orchestra pit at the opera! That would be something new — but why not? At a recent production of Pagliacci at the Central City Opera, something analogous happened on stage (as Janos Gereben described it in his review on the San Francisco Classical Voice website):

Concluding an opera about make-believe actors acting out a ‘real story,’ [stage director David] Edwards directed the just-slain Nedda and Silvio stand up when hearing ‘La commedia è finita,’ shaken but already being themselves (the singers, not the characters), and walk off stage. There were no curtain calls before the intermission; the singers, who portrayed actors, who participated in a ‘real story,’ now became the singers again, getting ready for the next opera.

If something so self-referential can happen on stage — something that shows how the performance is just that, a performance — why shouldn’t the conductor talk to us?

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