He has the kind of life story and unconventional career path that publicists and journalists must love, at least for a debut visit. But so far I’ve been more interested in the often provocative things he has to say about concert presentation, some of which have already sent me to my soap box. And he’s at it again, with this interview for The Sydney Morning Herald.
As before, I ended up wholeheartedly agreeing with him and tearing my hair in frustration.
1. James Rhodes says he doesn’t want people reading the program notes while he’s playing. That makes perfect sense; I’d feel the same if I were performing.
But I’d also add that if a performance is sufficiently compelling, well… you won’t even feel like reading the program, will you? (After all, one of the many valuable services a program book offers is distraction during a dull concert. And I say that in the same spirit as Mr Rhodes himself, when he writes that Beethoven “even had to play viola as a child in order to make money”.)
2. Then he spoils it with a careless generalisation that simply panders to prejudice:
“And [the program note’s] always written by some Oxford don from the ’70s about sonata form in Beethoven’s Vienna.* That’s f---ing boring. I’d rather talk about the fact that Bach was like a baroque Keith Richards and had 20 children and got arrested for drinking and f---ing.”†
Seriously James, I suspect that even in London, concert-goers aren’t seeing too many program notes from Oxford dons of the ’70s. And you’d be hard-pressed to find the donnish program note here in Australia. (Well, maybe from one presenter, but I’m not publishing directions.)
As I’ve said before, some program notes – and they can be old or recent – are poorly written, stuffy and generally unhelpful. It happens, and if an artist is lumbered with notes like this by a presenter he or she has every right to complain. (Better still, the artist who cares about such things has every right to show an interest well beforehand. Just sayin’.) But what really bugs me is when artists or commentators suggest that the badly written and unhelpful note is the status quo. Because it’s simply not.
I get that James Rhodes would prefer his audiences not be reading. Ok, so don’t give us anything to read. A well-edited and comprehensive program listing is fine by me. (Since he’s being presented by the same venue, it’s likely that his program will contain about as much reading material as that one for Stephen Kovacevich.)
And I totally get that he would prefer to share his ideas with the audience by talking to us. (Although his written comments aren’t bad at all – thoughtful and sincere – and I’m impressed that he’s one of the minority who’ve bucked the iTunes prejudice against providing digital booklets with albums. Go James!)
But I wish he’d get off the bandwagon about program notes ‘always’ being boring. That’s just unhelpful. And unfair.
Because the good writing about music is out there. Notes that are illuminating; notes that communicate affection for the music; notes that reveal an appreciation for how the listener is going to be experiencing it in a live concert; notes that are elegantly and generously written; notes that reflect and support the artistic vision of the programmer/performer; notes that don’t take themselves too seriously but also don’t fall into the trap of cheesy joviality and cheap shots; notes that are conceived with imagination; notes that help the readers focus their ears on the music and perhaps notice things they wouldn’t have otherwise; notes that give insightful context for the music… I could go on.
* This kind of statement is just as bad as Rupert Murdoch’s recent throwaway line about American classrooms: “Most American classrooms haven’t changed much since the days of Grover Cleveland. You have a teacher, a piece of chalk, a blackboard – and a room full of kids.” (And why exactly is Murdoch suddenly interested in American education?)
† It always pains me to temper a good story with the truth, but Bach wasn’t jailed for drinking and f---king, unless perhaps you use that last word in a loose, figurative sense. In 1717, while trying to arrange an early dismissal from his Weimar post so he could take up a more lucrative and satisfying one in Cöthen, Bach lost his temper with (probably) his noble employer. Thus “…on November 6, the quondam concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from his arrest with notice of his unfavourable discharge.” Actually, you could argue that this is a far more interesting reason to be arrested than mere drunkenness, and more revealing of Bach’s personality. At least I think so.