On Saturday afternoon one of Australia’s more prominent composers was booed at a concert. Not as a composer but as a representative of the world’s largest presenter of chamber music.
Why? Said presenter has stopped offering pre-concert talks. There were people in the audience who were pissed off by that and I think I sympathise.
Of course, I’ll say straight off that I can sympathise with the presenter too, because they tour their ensembles to cities around the country. Where I can hire one speaker to talk about a program three or four times, they’ve been hiring five or so different speakers to talk about the same program once each. The standard has been variable, they say.
[But you know, I’m not so sure that admitting the variable standard in public is good form. It’s tantamount to announcing from the stage that some of your speakers aren’t any good. I’m sorry, but if your speakers are good enough for you to have hired them, the least you can do is not implicitly defame them. And as the rationale for an unpopular decision it doesn’t hold much weight with those audiences who’ve been enjoying the excellent talks. Anyway, moving right along…]
I also sympathise with the fact that some venues can’t accommodate the audience numbers that a strong talks program deserves. A talk venue might be packed to standing room, but if the capacity is 80 or so people then the audience reach is curtailed right there.
And I’m hugely sympathetic to the desire to reach a wider audience in flexible ways by doing stuff online – enthusiastic, actually. This is excellent: it extends what you do to audiences with different expectations, different lifestyles, and different ways of seeking information.
But mostly I’m sympathising with the audience in this instance, and here’s why:
The loss of the pre-concert talks hasn’t really been compensated for. I don’t mean that many who would have attended the live talks can’t access the online alternative (although that’s true), or that the video format isn’t very conducive to being enjoyed as close to the concert as possible (i.e. while travelling), I’m referring to the fact that nothing’s been offered that fulfils the same all-important function.
A suite of videos (Online Concert Talks they’re called) is the designated replacement. The official claim is that they offer “a deeper dimension to the concert experience”, but in fact they don’t have much to do with the concert experience at all, being brief compartmentalised expositions of individual works. Such things can be useful, but if you enjoy pre-concert talks, you’ll know that’s not what you rock up half an hour early to hear.
A good talk is part of the evening’s, or afternoon’s, entertainment [heresy alert]. As well as aspiring to the same level of imagination and flair as the art form it introduces, it provides a transition from daily flurry into the kind of concentration that music demands, and an aural prelude that sets your mind on trains of thought that really can enhance your experience of the concert. Videos that you must watch ahead of time at your PC can’t do this; a downloadable audio format that you can listen to in your car might come closer.
A good talk isn’t a set of verbal program notes; it encourages you to use your ears, to make comparisons, to listen for relationships in places you weren’t expecting them, and to really pay attention to the music you’re about to hear.
And above all, a good pre-concert talk is about the concert, that is, it helps you get a handle on the program as a whole and appreciate the programmers’ vision. After all, anyone can swot up on the individual pieces and the lives of composers with the help of Professor Google, iTunes and the public library. (Furthermore, plenty of concert-goers do exactly that. And they purchase recordings in advance, as a Fish insider has told me.) But one of the reasons people go to concerts, apart from the immediacy of live performance, is because we want to enjoy the results of the artists’ and programmers’ curatorial efforts – because we hope that their selection of repertoire with its contrasts and balances, internal links, alignments and unexpected insights will be part of the pleasure. And only the concert presenter – via its published materials and its speakers – can explain and justify and illuminate that. That’s where the insights (as opposed to information) come from.All of which is why the Online Concert Talks in their current format aren’t going to satisfy those talk-goers, even were they to be sent to them on DVD or screened in a room before the concert. I didn’t boo, but my heart went out to those who did.