“Today or tomorrow,” as Mendelssohn wrote 183 years ago, “I am going to dream A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I won’t necessarily go to Mendelssohnian extremes by doing this in the garden (I suspect Felix’s garden was much nicer than Thomasina’s) but I will need to hole myself up between now and Wednesday and take inspiration from Mendelssohn, from Shakespeare, and from some wonderful plans that have been set in motion by director Tim Carroll. All this in preparation for what may be one of the trickiest pre-concert talks I ever have to give.
How so? Large parts of this production (“concert” is inadequate as a description) fall under an uncharacteristic blanket of secrecy. And even at the actual performances – where absolute secrecy will be increasingly less of an issue, especially once the reviews begin to appear – I’ll be carefully weighing every word, each revelation, to ensure that exquisite surprises are not spoilt and that the gestalt (oh, wonderful thing that it is) is not disclosed prematurely.
But I am looking forward to it. If someone had told me I could attend only one SSO concert this year, this is the program I would have picked. That’s the result of a whole bunch of personal biases. I love the theatre in all its forms (it’s an older love than my love for concert music). I’ve loved Shakespeare’s plays ever since my mother deposited me – sans unhelpful “preparation” or “caveats” – in front of Macbeth at the age of ten. And I love Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music.
Above all, I’m looking forward to it because – and here I utter a heresy – I believe that concerts can and should be entertaining. I believe that we should, at every turn, be seeking ways to present the music we love in performances that are engaging, richly imagined, lively and sophisticated. (I’m not talking about pasting on a compère, either, but about the ways in which we conceive the concert’s program and performance as a whole.) I believe that classical music performances need to contain as much stagecraft and attention to presentation and “display” as you would find if you went to a play, a ballet, a musical or an opera.
Occasionally orchestras get close to that. There are the little things that can inform every performance. When I was in Perth, audiences frequently commented on little differences in stage presentation between the WASO and the ACO – people notice when musicians walk on together, seem animated, acknowledge applause graciously, or finish a piece with a coordinated flourish of bows. These things (even more than concert dress) matter.
Then there are bigger things. The Shock of the New concerts that Sydney audiences experienced over several years weren’t exactly an unqualified success, but they were remarkable (and for me highly enjoyable) in that they embodied an almost theatrical conception of how a program of music could be “put across”. Those programs had a message, a message that was realised and communicated at a number of different levels, not just in the absolute performance but in the use of lighting, the placement of performers in the hall, the crafty segues between pieces, even the withholding of information until the end. Like them or not, there was imagination in their presentation. They represented an attempt to nudge (shock?) us out of the straight and narrow of conventional concert-going and to make us all listen with fresh ears.
So these concerts coming up this week are, from that perspective, an exciting example of how music can be presented in a way that embraces the various art forms and which offers us in the audience what can only be described as a compleat entertainment.
It won’t be the first time that an Australian orchestra has done something along these lines with this music. (That honour, I’m pretty certain, goes to the performance that Howard Shelley devised and conducted for the TSO’s “S&M Festival” in 1997, and which I had the privilege of working on.) Since then WASO, MSO and QSO (as it was) have all done much the same thing, with one or two actors. But this will be on a much grander and more ambitious scale, as befits a gala week celebrating the opening of the concert season and the arrival of the Principal Conductor who has signed us up for all this “Madness, Mayhem and Music”.
The first two words? No marketing puff these. Without spoiling the fun, I can say we’re in for a fair share of both. As for the third word: Music? I like that we’re celebrating music, with a Musician (as his T-shirt says), and in a way that shows how intrinsic music is to imagination, life, love and all its dramas.
Oh, and it will be refreshing not to open the season with a requiem.
Now. Structured procrastination over. Back to work…