John Frayne: Communicating with audience essential
"Whatever are they playing (singing)?"
"Where are we in this symphony (concerto)?"
"What do the words, being sung in a foreign language, mean?"
"The singer just said something which the folks in row A found hilarious. Unfortunately, I sit in row X."
We concertgoers pay money to sit in the dark and be entertained, but sometimes the word "dark" takes on another meaning.
The primary mode of musicians to reach an audience is through music, which may or may not have a verbal content. Successful musicians communicate splendidly through music. But often words fail them and necessary information does not get across.
Program notes are essential at classical concerts. We must know what is to be played, and information about the composer and the work can add to our enjoyment, especially if the work is unfamiliar.
But we cannot be expected to read and memorize those notes before the concert, and then have the lights turned down (or off), making the notes illegible. The most grotesque examples of miscommunication are at vocal recitals, when the program notes contain 20 pages of original song texts (in five languages) and English translations thereof, and then, in the dark, we can't follow the verbal content of what the singer is conveying.
Then, there is spoken information from the stage. Most performers spend decades mastering their instruments, but many are not trained speakers.
I say to them: Please use a microphone. And even then, speak slowly and distinctly. Avoid quick, spoken quips, which are hard to understand. If you are going to play an encore, give the title as clearly and loudly as you can.
And now we get to the content of the music. Some people in the audience might be hearing the Fifth Symphony by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky for the first time. They might not know what movement they are in. The program gives them information on how fast or slow the music is supposed to go, but in the Italian language ("allegro," "andante") — or German or French.
A classic example of listener confusion is Modeste Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (in the Maurice Ravel orchestration). Many listeners get lost in the thickets of the 10 "pictures" at this musical exhibition.
And in theme and variations compositions for the keyboard, a few musicians in the audience will know exactly which of the 30 variations of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variations" is now being played, but most of us get lost.
Well, you may ask whether it is so important to know where you are in the music? Surely this is so in the Mussorgsky "Pictures." And in the Bach "Variations," there may be a variation (say No. 25) that you think is so extraordinarily beautiful that you want to know the number of it.
Now, for a futuristic proposal! In our miracle world of instant digital and distant communication, there must be a visual means in the concert hall to convey to the audience where we are in a piece?
"Too complicated," you say, or "Not worth it." Well, in opera houses, supertitles were thought futuristic a half-century ago and were bitterly fought off by some impresarios.
Now supertitles, even of operas in English, are commonplace, and they are mostly accepted by audiences with enthusiasm. Why not get the kind of visual information in the concert hall that you can get from any CD player in your living room?
A suggestion to writers of program notes: We know you have spent years studying music theory, but highly technical analysis of music is lost on most concertgoers. Some analysis of the form of a composition can helpful, but many of us want to be told what mood or emotion the music is trying to convey.
I know it is difficult to address an audience of greatly varying technical sophistication, but you program annotators will get special credit from us for trying.
Here is some advice for those responsible for writing the biographical sketches of performers: Most such bios are boring. Endless lists of performances with the world's leading orchestras do convey something of the artist's eminence, but, please, not so many details!
Tell us about some interesting aspect of the players' personal life. Remember that we have paid to hear him or her, not to hire them.
To end on a positive note, some performers do an excellent job of speaking clearly from stage or podium; some program notes are eloquently written and arouse a keen appetite to hear the music. But we should all remember that we are promoting a product of inestimable value which many people think remote or unapproachable, in plain language, "over their heads."
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.