At the dry cleaner this morning I noticed a poster for Rod Stewart’s new album, Vol. III of The Great American Songbook, the series of CDs on which he sings old pop standards. And what struck me was the language used to describe what’s going on: “The exciting third installment of the spectacular trilogy,” or something very like that. And, below it, introducing the list of songs Stewart sings, “Including these classic songs.”
Now, this is exactly the kind of meaningless boilerplate I complain about in classical music publicity — empty, meaningless praise, words that don’t tell you anything about how Stewart sings these songs. But there’s a difference. Everyone who’s going to care about this album knows Rod Stewart. Everybody knows what kind of singer — and what kind of personality — he is. Anybody could expect, from hearing his old rock stuff, or simply from seeing how he dresses, what kind of ragged elegance he might bring to pop standards. Then, once the first Great American Songbook CD came out, anyone could know what a success it was, and look forward to its sequels.
Besides, there’s a photo on the poster, a really impish, charming, slightly naughty one (naughty, please, in its older, non-sexual sense), and that tells you all you need to know. A little like this one does (from the cover of volume I; I couldn’t find the photo on the poster on the web):
Classical music publicity, by contrast, tries to tell us about musicians we might not already know, or — worse — musicians we’ve heard of, but don’t really know anything about. And the publicists, by and large, don’t have much that’s informative or even plausible to say about them.
Some recent examples:
From a press release about a fairly minor oratorio performance in New York, describing one of the soloists:
American mezzo-soprano XXX [their boldface emphasis] is consistently praised for the burnished, bronze beauty of her voice enhanced by an innate musicality and a persuasive, sensuous manner of communication.
This is far too much praise for someone with no special reputation. If she’s this good, why isn’t she famous? And in fact these words would be too much praise for the most famous mezzos in the world, Olga Boradina, let’s say, or Ewa Podles, or Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (whose voice, whatever other transcendent qualities she might have, isn’t “burnished”).
And then this, from a major classical music institution:
[Name of series omitted] continues with Norweigan cellist Truls Mørk in his exclusive [name of city omitted] recital on [date and place omitted]. Mr. Mørk will be accompanied by pianist Kathryn Stott. The first half of their program will begin with Nikolay Myaskovsky’s (1881-1950) Sonata for Cello No. 1 in D major, Op. 12, followed by the Sonata for Cello in C major, Op. 119 composed by Sergei Prokofiev, who was his friend and fellow student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Janácek’s Pohádka (or “Fairytale”) and Chopin’s Sonata for Cello in G minor, Op. 65 will complete the program.
This isn’t even grammatical. Look at this part of the second sentence (which, by the way, is way too long for any everyday purpose): “Sergei Prokofiev, who was his friend and fellow student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.” His? Who does this pronoun refer to? Myaskovksy, evidently — and it’s easy enough to figure that out — but the structure of the sentence suggests something different. Myaskovsky doesn’t seem to be the antencedent of “his.” Instead, the simplest and most logical antecedent (logical from any grammatical point of view) would “the Sonata for Cello in C major, Op. 119. Or in other words, the sentence really proceeds as follows: “…the Sonata [etc.], composed by Sergei Prokovfiev, who was his friend [meaning the sonata's friend]” The reference to Myaskovsky is too far back and — since it occurs as a possessive — too elliptical to bear the weight of explaining a later pronoun.
But that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is why anyone should care that Prokofiev and Myaskovsky went to school together. Will knowing this make us understand the concert better? Will we go to the performance, and relish little details in the music that only someone who’d studied in St. Petersburg could have written? (“Hey, listen to the way they resolve those dominant 13ths! Every student in St. Petersburg resolved them that way.”) Note that, in this opening paragraph of the press release, this apparently meaningless biographical detail is the only thing we’re offered, to get us interested in the concert, except the basic who, what, where, and when. Did somebody think this was the most important — tastiest, most vivid — thing we ought to know? And if not, why stick it right up there at the beginning?
Later in the release, there’s a good, sharp phrase about how Mørk plays: He has a reputation, we’re told, “as a cellist of fierce intensity.” That’s nicely specific, and true. But why wasn’t it at the start of the release, where it might give us something to hang on to, before our eyes glaze over and we fall asleep?
I’m not going to blame the publicists for this. They’re not dealing with Rod Stewart here, or, more generally, with anyone whose personality and individual approach to music jumps right out at you. Nor are they working in a field that seems to value either that vivid individuality, or language that might describe it. Concerts tend to be stultifyingly similar. What could anybody say about most of them?
Nor do the artists and their managers make the job any easier, since often they insist on meaningless biolerplate, empty recitations of professional achievements. When some publicist or manager tells us that Truls Mørk has played with “with such major orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Royal Concertgebouw, London Symphony, BBC Symphony, Tonhalle Zürich, Oslo Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic as well as the major orchestras in the United States” — does anybody really care which orchestras these are? For all we know or care, the publicists just pick names of orchestras at random. And who’d care if they did? When somebody reaches Mørk’s level, of course he plays with many major orchestras. What difference does it make — not to him, perhaps, but to members of his audience — which ones they are?
The way to write these press releases, if you ask me, is to find some genuinely interesting (even if modest) thing that the artist thinks about, either concerning the specific music at the concert, or about music (or even life) in general. Thus, the mezzo with the allegedly burnished voice, who’ll appear in Mozart and Haydn masses, might be quoted saying: “Haydn is a delight for me to sing, because he’s very direct. Mozart is a lot trickier. His vocal lines are more like instrumental music, completely beautiful, of course, but very long and sustained.” I’m not claiming, of course, to know this singer really thinks such things about Haydn and Mozart. But if I read something like this, I’d immediately be interested. “Here’s somebody who thinks about this music.”
Mørk, likewise, might be quoted saying something about how he thinks the pieces on his program fit together — or don’t fit, because sometimes utter contrast is what an artist wants. As an afterthought, he might add, “It fascinates me that Myaskovsky and Prokofiev went to school together. Sometimes I think I can hear some similarities in their music. But I might be making that up. Still, it’s interesting to bring composers together in my mind, even for a reason that’s essentially random, because it doesn’t prove that the composers had any truly close connection. But it can help me hear their music differently.”
Or something like that. Please, publicists — and please, musicians and managers — tell us something about the concerts you’re involved with that really means something!