One has to wonder what the goal is of program notes nowadays. They’ve always been a difficult balancing act, addressed both to the absolute newcomer and the jaded subscriber. But lately, it seems that annotators run the risk of alienating both.
You used to find the concert equivalent of the audio walking tour: this happens and then this happens and then we modulate to D and then something else happens. Like a child’s book report. The style often talks over the head of the beginner and bores the advanced. It also has nothing to do with the way you will feel from listening to the music, which is why we’re sitting in a concert hall, after all. Now the trend seems to be toward generalizations that might not illuminate what the listener will actually experience.
I was struck by this when reading last night’s program notes of the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert of the Beethoven violin concerto and Sibelius’s 6th and 7th symphonies at Carnegie Hall. Sibelius offers so much to the listener: great tunes, stunning sonorities, and an emotional power that defies description. My idea of good program notes include noting just a few moments where the listener can hang his hat, and the instruction to allow yourself to be swept up into Sibelius’ world.
Instead, the annotator gives us this, in his description of the opening of the 6th Symphony:
“Two additional features… must be noted:… a “germ motif,” which is found in so many of Sibelius’s works. In this case, it is the first four notes played by the upper half of the second violin section…”
Got that listeners? So don’t take in the bigger picture of a violins and violas playing in 5-part polyphony, which the program note mentions. Don’t absorb the melancholy (or is it hope?) of this quiet opening. Don’t think about where this otherworldly journey might be taking us. Just listen for the very first four notes found thick in the violin texture. Miss that and you’ll miss out on the sequence that “will play a more significant role than that of any of the principal themes,” and you might as well go home.
The annotator also says that one movement requires “a Mendelssohnian lightness of touch and almost airborne fleetness.” Listening to Sibelius and thinking about Mendelssohn is like reminiscing about your ex-boyfriend while you’re on your honeymoon. “A gentle melancholy seems to hover over” the second movement, he writes. Yes, with a strong nose, smooth finish, and aromas of blackberry and pine.
Look, I get it: writing about music is hard, and the annotator for this concert did just as good a job as anyone else I’ve read. But maybe what listeners need is not metaphors, historical trivia, or technical analyses; maybe what’s needed is a way to describe what a listener will experience.
How about this: some of Sibelius’s finest moments come when he builds intricate patterns over a repeated phrase. Watch and listen for these patterns beginning in a small group of instruments, with others slowly joining in, propelling the moment forward. Sibelius also makes interesting use of pedal points, or single note drones, which appear unexpectedly throughout the orchestra, building tension and providing contrast to the layers of sound he weaves over it.
Or an annotator could say that hearing the 6th live gives us something no recording can: the true experience of watching and listening as a phrase jumps around between different groups of divided strings, not in imitative canon, but in a way that defies the listener to chase the melody around the orchestra with eyes and ears.