A few days ago The Times pulled together “the cream of British talent” to suggest how they would transform the traditional audience for a new concert. Sorry, Freudian slip there: “how they would transform the traditional concert for a new audience.”
As the deliciously irreverent Proper Discord says, “The responses range from visionary to downright retarded.” Personally, I’m with the commenter who cringes at any headline containing “to the masses”. Bloody condescending indeed.
But what really jumped out at me was a comment from pianist James Rhodes. It’s not new thinking, I’ve read the same comment hundreds of times before, it’s practically become an unthinking cliché devoid of meaning, like “relevant”. But for some reason, the context of his remarks brought to the surface an idea that’s been niggling at the back of my brain for ages.
Anyway, here’s what he said:
“Musicians should be seen as just like anyone else.”
The first thing I wonder is if what James Rhodes is proposing does actually show us musicians as “just like anyone else.” Or does it in fact emphasise that musicians are not just like anyone else at all?
Which is not a problem in the slightest, because the second thing I wonder is whether audiences (regulars or newbies) really do want musicians to be seen as “just like anyone else” – on stage and in performance at least. Really. Is that what we want? I don’t think so.
When I go to the theatre or the opera or the ballet or a concert, I most emphatically do not want to see performers who are just like anyone else. I want to see and hear artists who represent the best in their field, I want to be wowed by tremendous performances, to be moved. I don’t want ordinary; I want extraordinary. And I don’t particularly want the performers breaking the fourth wall with a view to showing me how “ordinary” they really are or to tell me what it all means to them. That would spoil the magic. With good reason we never ask this of other artists in the performing arts (the dancers, the singers, the actors), but it’s continually being suggested of classical musicians that they should do this – in performances.
[Just to be clear: I’m not talking about all the various things that performing artists can do, outside their performances, which might reveal their personalities, foibles, passions and so on, this is about what happens in concerts.]
But let’s get tangible. Here’s just one example (and it’s something that audiences complain about):
When a musician turns to their stand partner and looks glum instead of acknowledging enthusiastic applause, they’re showing themselves to be just like any one of us in the audience – it’s the equivalent of rolling your eyes to a colleague as you walk out of a long and frustrating meeting, which, needless to say, has never really taken off as paid entertainment.
In this and countless other ways, classical musicians already show themselves to be just like anyone else. Of all the performing artists, they’re actually way ahead in this game of demonstrating ordinariness on stage. We see them and we can tell if they’re reserved or outgoing, we can often tell if they’re in good spirits or not, we get to hear orchestral musicians warm up in our presence (and whether you love it or loathe it that’s a very personal and “exposed” thing to be doing), and it can be very easy to tell what musicians think of the performance that’s just taken place, whether it’s the exhausted, glum look or the excited stand-rapping for a soloist they admire. There’s a remarkable degree of candour present in classical concerts already.
Now I’m not entirely disagreeing with James Rhodes. Music deserves to be shared, absolutely. Concert audiences don’t want to be lectured to. Audiences much prefer for performers to have stagecraft, to use their body language to acknowledge the audience and to invite them into a musical world, even without necessarily saying a single word. It’s a post-concert thing, so strictly outside the scope, but I think it’s great that he goes to the foyer bar afterwards to chat with patrons: I’d just love to see more venues keep the foyer bar open afterwards, punkt.
[However, I do think it’s ok if the audience is down here and the performer is up there: it means I’ll be able to see and hear him. Small thing, that. And I am cross that he perpetuates the tired old line about bad program notes. Come on, people: there are well-written program notes that support the artist’s vision; if presenters publish unhelpful or irrelevant ones that’s not a reason to diss the form altogether.]
But the nub of it is that James Rhodes belongs to a growing group that likes to talk [from the stage] about what the music means to him. So let’s think about that. I’d say, if he does that well and in a way that’s illuminating, then this is actually another way in which he demonstrates that he is not like anyone else. Because relatively few people – including more than a share of performing musicians – have a gift for writing or speaking about music in a way that’s meaningful or revealing. It’s genuinely difficult to do. If a musician can do it well, then it becomes something extraordinary, and a part of the performance, of the stagecraft. (I won’t say “act”, but that would be another way of thinking about it.)
I would also say, that for most of us in the audience, if we enjoy the experience of a musician speaking from the stage it’s not because it’s enabled us to regard them as ordinary or “like us”, but because it’s been a well-crafted, enjoyable and illuminating element in the performance. It will have revealed not just something of the performer’s personality and approach but something of the music itself. Above all, it will have helped us do the thing we came for, which is to listen and to really hear. [Of my recent experiences the Diotima Quartet talking about Ligeti achieved this beautifully.] If talk from the stage leaves us thinking of the musician as just like anyone else then chances are it’s being done badly (after all, doesn’t everyone quail at the thought of public speaking?), and it almost certainly won’t have made for a better concert.
So let’s get off this cracked record of an idea that classical musicians will somehow enjoy more success in the modern world if they appear to be just like anyone else – in performances. They’re not like anyone else and I don’t think we want them to be. If they’re going to talk from the stage, something which requires its own artistry, the question has to be: Will this make for a better concert?