Don’t do it. Or at least, don’t do it the way we’ve been doing it.
That was my thought as I watched Alan Gilbert sweat through another awkward attempt at “audience engagement” last Thursday night at the Phil. Talking to the audience before a concert is supposed to be how we break the ice from the standard concert format, the rituals of which must surely baffle newcomers. The Entrance of the Concertmaster. The Smattering of Applause. The Playing of a Single Note. The Entrance of the Conductor to Great Applause. The Nod. The Turn of the Back. The Music Begins.
For those of us trying to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who hasn’t been to many concerts, we keep thinking that they surely would like some explanation of what’s to come (in case it wasn’t enough to have read the publicity that got them to buy a ticket to begin with, the program notes, and possibly listening to the whole thing online). Or perhaps that our newbie – and maybe even some longtime subscribers – would feel personally touched if maestro humanized himself by saying a few words, instead of simply presenting his fanny in silence.
So what we get is the spectacle of the poor schlub in tails, fumbling with a mike and scrawled notes, trying to illuminate a masterwork in 40 words or less. It turns out, talking about music is about as easy as writing about it.
The resulting comments tend to fall into the following categories, all of which were painfully demonstrated at the concert:
My pet peeve. I come to concerts precisely because I’m sick of the news. On Thursday, Gilbert apologized for the program (Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales, Nielsen Clarinet Concerto, Tchaikovsky Swan Lake) explaining that it was planned as simply nice music to make you forget your troubles. After the massacre at Charlie Hebdo however, “that is impossible,” he said. Gilbert quoted Bernstein’s “response to violence,” and concluded that “we are all Charlie,” to more applause than he had enjoyed when he walked out. However sad the loss of life in Paris, and however complicated the meaning of that particular attack, I did not come to the New York Philharmonic to make a political statement about it. But I don’t know, other people liked it.
This is a rather flailing example of an attempt to be “relevant” to listeners lives. It’s not without parallel in other struggling civic institutions – I once sang at a church that on earth day, rang its bells 350 times to symbolize the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What if our cultural institutions were relevant by offering us an experience we can get nowhere else, making them relevant enough just for that reason?
At the Philharmonic concert, the orchestra librarian, Sandra Pierson, appeared during the set change to say a few words about the Nielsen clarinet concert. From my perch in the balcony, phones lit up and heads went down.
It was a better use of the time than simply awkward silence, but Ms. Pierson unfortunately resorted to generalizations to describe the work quickly, including a reference to “this sublime piece.” But what happens if as a listener, I don’t think it’s sublime? I go home thinking I’m just not good at listening to this music. A complicated piece like the Nielsen actually merits a few listens before you feel you’ve gotten to know it well.
Snare drum, chamber orchestra, harmonics. Ms. Pierson wisely pointed out specific musical examples to make the case for the Nielsen’s merit, but in order to do so, she talked about things that people might not have at the tip of their brains. (She did say that if you don’t know what a harmonic is, you’ll know it when the room goes cold. Or you could be like me, and miss it entirely.)
It strikes me how much vocabulary one is expected to know in order to listen to music that has no words at all. Museums don’t make similar demands on visitors with technical explanations in their interpretative panels. When you use words that not everyone knows, you exclude them, and make them feel stupid, as if this isn’t for them. If we really want to read up on something, we will. After the concert. Meanwhile, just sit and listen and don’t worry about it.
The other problem with pointing out musical moments is that it distracts from the whole experience of the piece. Having my ears pricked for the clarinet duets with the snare drum, as Ms. Pierson pointed out, made the rest of the orchestra fade to the background with the first rat-a-tat.
She also praised how Nielsen “uses a chamber orchestra in deceptively simple ways.” Even if you know what a chamber orchestra is, this statement is meaningless. Be specific. The Nielsen orchestra calls for strings, two bassoons, two horns, and a single percussion instrument, the snare drum. This is a very unusual group of instruments – maybe completely unique? – and confirms Nielsen as a composer whose sound matches no other.
The musician delivering all this invariably appears out of his or her element, unexpectedly doing a job for which they have the least training. It narrows the aesthetic distance we need to focus on the art, not the artist.
I don’t believe any of this enriches the experience of an adult who has made the effort to go outside their comfort zone by coming to a classical music concert. Instead, it patronizes them. Longtime listeners – also known as the donor base – are even more anxious to get to what they came for.
Moreover, all of the above also puts the focus on the music, but the listener is not mentioned at all. She is still left to fend for herself, with no instructions of what to do once the music starts, apart from trying to figure out what a snare drum is. From children’s concerts on up, we as an audience are told that the best stuff is happening on stage. Listeners would benefit from hearing that they actually have the best seats in the house.
In my (albeit limited) experience, we could do better by keeping the yakking simple. If saying a few words at a concert adds value – and at 1,000+ seat venues in our greatest cultural shrines, I don’t think it does – here are some ideas.
Beyond the history in the program notes, give us an image we can think about while we listen. Remember, an image is something you can draw. You should have felt the focus in the room when I told a classroom of first-graders that the Goldberg variations were written for a prince to listen to while he tried to fall asleep.
Who doesn’t like a story? The orchestra librarian started out right when she said the Nielsen clarinet concerto was her favorite wind concerto when she was a bassoon student, but I for one would have loved to have heard more. Did she have a clarinetist friend as mercurial and energetic as the friend of Nielsen’s to whom the piece is dedicated, and whose temperament characterizes the music? If our goal is to personalize the wordless concert experience, a personal story is one way to do it.
This might be all any concert needs, as innocuous as the cell-phone turn off reminder but more powerful. Permission to get bored. Permission to not always “get it.” Permission to let your mind wander. Permission to let this concert experience be whatever it’s going to be, that in a lifetime of listening this is one step in the journey. It may be sublime, or it may just not be sublime for you. Just by trying to find meaning in music without words, by opening your ears to sounds you infrequently hear, you are doing what you are supposed to do.
This message could be summed up quickly and effectively, giving newcomers something to hold on to and rolling off oldtimers’ ears like the announcements at church.
Oh, and to suppress a sneeze just hold your nose, and breathe deeply if you have to cough.