Marcellous’s long-awaited return to the melon patch began with his annual report of the Stuart Challender “lecture” – this year an interview with pianist Stephen Hough. Perhaps we should stop calling it a lecture – it seems to adopt an interview format at least half the time, it being true that a solo lecture takes a lot more preparation for the guest.
In any case, this year’s Challender event quite restored my faith in the conversation format following the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival. Alex Ross of The Rest is Noise fame was a festival guest, with two spots on the program: an “in conversation” at the Sydney Theatre and a lecture at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre. I had decided to attend just the lecture, but the late offer of a ticket to the interview saw me attending both. My original instincts were entirely justified.
The SWF conversation was, in a word, hugely disappointing. (Yes, that’s two words – that’s how disappointing it was.) Ross’s interviewer appeared to have given his book only a very cursory reading and didn’t seem to have much grasp of the subject matter generally. The result was a lame set of questions and a dull and disjointed presentation. I spent most of the evening wishing that Andrew Ford were doing the interviewing. Then we could have witnessed a real conversation between two thoughtful, musical minds. It was only towards the end that I recalled that Andy had a competing engagement on Bennelong Point and wouldn’t have been available anyway. A great pity.
By contrast, the Challender event saw a conversation between an artist and someone who had worked with him in programming and who shares many of his musical and other interests. I’d agree that most of Stephen Hough’s views and ideas had already been raised on his blog, which is lively, frequently updated and impressive in the extent to which he engages with his commenters. But I’m not sure that this would have been any different if he had prepared a formal lecture. Experiencing the artist away from the piano was, in all fairness, the true theme of the evening, although Stephen and David Garrett didn’t shy away from the advertised topic of “music and spirituality”.
Back to Alex Ross. The beginning of his lecture was delayed by an unfortunate accident – a woman fell and injured herself on the auditorium stairs – but once it got underway it was clearly in a different league to the earlier conversation. Even before considering the content, there was a remarkable change to the character of his vocal delivery. Where, in the conversation, he’d come across as a bit subdued and unvaried in colour and pacing (perhaps jet lag? perhaps the uninspiring questions?), the lecture saw him delivering a script of his own structuring and with that came a more animated style, and deftly injected drama and humour. This is not really surprising: he’s a writer rather than a raconteur and I imagine that being in control of his own material allows his performing instincts to emerge.
If I were to summarise Ross’s theme of Classical Music in Popular Culture – admittedly several weeks later, not having taken notes – I would say that it was “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. He used Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed as a starting point. Like a society, he said, the classical music world could choose to succeed, through adaptation and change, or it could choose failure (read, extinction) by deciding not to adapt or change.
Throughout history, societies faced by competition or threat have had to decide what is an intrinsic, essential value, which must be retained for identity and integrity, and what is superficial or extraneous. Similarly, with classical music, we need to sort out what are the values – the things that if lost will cause the irredeemable damage to the art form – and what things can be safely discarded or changed, perhaps even for the better. You might, and these are my examples, believe it’s crucial, given its nature and intent, for orchestral music to be performed and heard in an appropriate acoustic space with a more or less attentive audience – that would then be a value. You might not be so wedded to rigid social conventions such as the one that currently surrounds applause between movements – such things have changed in the past and must surely change again.
I observed at both SWF events that precisely three audience questions were taken. A letter to the editor in the SMH implied that this was some kind of policy. The Challender lecture was a little more flexible, and the questions covered more ground, although there were the inevitable few that veered in the direction of being a pretext to air a view or tell a story.
One of the Challender questions had me quite excited as it began, asking Stephen about his relationships with composers. Aha, I thought, we will get to hear whether he works with any living composers, if he’s commissioned things, perhaps he’ll talk about being a composer himself (the one topic that was neglected in the interview). Then the question continued: it was Stephen’s “relationships” with dead composers that was being asked after. Sigh. Not that the answer wasn’t a thoughtful one.
This and some of the other questions offered a reminder of the perceptions and beliefs that many non-performers hold about musical artists, sometimes quite endearingly misguided. No doubt romantic fictional accounts, and even some performers themselves, have helped nurture these: the idea of the performer channelling a dead composer or literally entering into the emotions being conveyed in the music. Stephen’s sane response to the matter of emotions during performance reminded me of the words of Tchaikovsky in relation to his Pathétique Symphony:
‘Anyone who believes that the creative person is capable of expressing what he feels out of a momentary effect aided by the means of art is mistaken. Melancholy as well as joyous feelings can always be expressive only out of the Retrospective.’
As a footnote I’ll mention that the indefatiguable Stephen Hough has also been making guest appearances in the pre-concert talks for his concerts with the SSO this week. (The last performance is on Monday night, talk at 6.15pm for a 7pm concert.) He was moved to recite a chunk of text from Walton’s Façade on Wednesday evening and pressured (I confess to adding to the vocal audience encouragement) into repeating it on Friday despite the loss of spontaneity. I suspect he won’t be enticed again. But perhaps he’ll continue to share his impressions of the Walton First Symphony, so delightfully and astutely summed up as “Sibelius in spats”. Meanwhile, as if all this hasn’t been talk enough, I’m planning to tune in to his interval feature during the live broadcast on ABC Classic FM this evening.