Friday, February 01, 2013

10 Bad Things--10 Good Things

This is an annotated version of a post by Jessica Duchen.

Ten Things That Make No Difference Whatsoever To Music, and Things That Do


1. What the conductor wears. As long as he/she does a good job and looks OK. Friend of mine tells me he refuses to wear those popular-alternative-to-white-tie Nehru jackets because they remind him of the Russian mafia. 

[This isn't really an issue for opera since the conductor is hidden away in the pit and appears only at the end in the bows. If the opera is being filmed, you'll see him on the film.]

2. What the orchestra wears. As long as they do a good job and look OK. And people generally look a lot better in evening dress than got up as stage-hands in all-black. They are a team and they should look like one. Saying they shouldn't is as well-informed as saying footballers should be able to wear what they like on the pitch, rather than ugly shorts and outmoded t-shirts in colours that don't suit them. 

[Same comment as #1 except for the fact that at the opera the audience never sees them. However, I remember once performing for a matinee with the SF Symphony and remembering how surprised I was when the players all showed up in morning dress, complete with cutaway coats and striped pants. Who knew? This is probably going to have to do with the expected audience.]

3. What the audience wears, as long as it doesn't smell. 

[Most of my opera going life has been in San Francisco where everyone wears whatever they want. Maybe not to the official opening, but all of the rest of the time. I certainly never dress up. I remember overhearing someone whisper the words "jogging suit" once, though.]

4. Whether people can take drinks into the hall. 

[Wouldn't that be fun. I hide stuff to eat in my purse in spite of the fact that it's forbidden.  This is one of the best things about opera at the movies.  Now that I've experienced dining at the movies, I might like that, too, as long as the dishes don't clank.]

5. Where Valery Gergiev or Simon Rattle will be principal conductor next. 

[Munich and unknown, in that order. Nevertheless, I must know this because someone wrote about it. Why not? I admit to being more interested in VG than in SR. VG's first out of town guesting appearances were at the San Francisco Opera when Lotfi Mansouri imported whole productions from Russia, so I retain an interest in the rest of his career.  We can't afford him any more.  Taking an interest in specific performers and their careers is something I write about quite a lot and is part of the show business part of classical music.]

6. Whether the soloist prefers not to wear shoes.

[Measha Brueggergosman doesn't wear any shoes under her long dress. She's the only one I know. If they wear shoes, you probably wouldn't write about that. I personally think going without shoes in a performance space is dangerous.]

7. What the soloist looks like, ie "hot or not" - as long as he/she is the finest musician there is.

[I haven't done a "hot or not" for instrumental soloists, but that doesn't mean I never would. So far I've only done singers and conductors. Do I think it's possible to be a successful instrumental soloist and not be "hot?" Witness Murray Perahia, a truly wonderful pianist. The original hot pianist was Franz Liszt. I would bet that Murray would be a lot more famous if he looked like Franz.]

8. Whether the orchestra smiles and throws itself around while playing. It may look fun, remember, but most of that music needs a high level of virtuosity and concentration, and you don't expect a brain surgeon to grin and jig about while he's doing his job, do you? 

[To my knowledge no brain surgeon has gone into show business. Billy Jean King raised women's tennis to public awareness, and therefore her fees, by knowing that she was in show business.   Female tennis players are still the highest paid female athletes.  Symphony concerts are show business. However, I am aware that moving your body around a lot while playing will make the orchestra sound different. Do you enjoy the difference or not? That's all that matters.  I sometimes find that I do.  Cecilia bouncing on the bed in Semele did seem to throw off her technique.

Perhaps we're far enough along in this to make a more general comment. What the critics of the stodginess of classical music are trying to say is that this, too, is show business, and that it is long overdue for its participants to begin realizing this. Doing things to arouse the interest of the public, specifically the under 60 public, is a feature of all branches of show business. This is more the job of the publicist than of the journalist.]

9. Imagining that none of these things have ever been addressed. They have. They are being addressed constantly, in many of the country's top orchestras. Go to The Rest is Noise and you'll find Vladimir Jurowski talking most eloquently and approachably to the crowd. Go to the OAE and all sorts happens - just wait and see what they're about to do with Vivaldi's best-known piece. Plus go to either and what do you find? Full halls and standing ovations and audiences of all ages shouting for more. You should have heard the reception for the Richard Strauss concert that opened The Rest is Noise the other day! It's just that you have to go there to experience this before you mouth off about it. 

[She is discussing something in particular about which I have no knowledge.  She lives in London, I think.  We don't have that kind of enthusiasm here.]

10. Writing or reading all that faff yet again. Save yourself the time and go to a good concert instead. 

[Interesting. For some reason I'm not permitted to do both. ]



1. Communication. If a conductor or soloist is good at speaking to the audience, people enjoy this. If he/she isn't, then they shouldn't have to, because it can be embarrassing. 

[I could usually do without this. People love to talk. I prefer the talking to be part of a pre-concert lecture. Which I can then skip. I generally want to be surprised, something that gets harder and harder to achieve. ]

2. Good and safe public transport so that people can get home easily afterwards. Parking is also useful. 

[Everything has to be over in time to take said public transport. This isn't going to generate any PR.]

3. Plenty of choice, and good ambiences, for pre and post-concert food, drink and socialising. A concert is a complete evening out for many. 

[The LA Opera is in a horrible part of town with few choices and not much ambiance. San Francisco is nice for this. There is always somewhere nice to eat.]

4. Mobile phones. Bloody mobile phones. Switch them off! 

[I think it was London where they play a loud sound like a phone ringing to remind people to turn them off. Listening to Joyce from Brussels, I could hear that same sound.  It doesn't hurt to remind again after intermission.  I don't know how this fits with the idea of tweeting during a concert.]

5. Lighting. Not fancy stuff, just low, so that we have to read first and listen during. That's how I prefer it, anyway. It improves concentration. 

[If there are singers, the audience needs to read the translation during. Concerts with surtitles are not out of the question. You can see in my photo of the interior of Salle Pleyel that they have surtitles. I know what's going on in the Dichterliebe and might prefer not to see it flashed on a screen.  I'd have to ponder this.]

6. Someone needs to remind orchestras, sometimes, that they're performing the minute they're on the platform. Yawning, slouching and yakking don't make a great impression. Having so said, see above, no.8. 

[Really. This is so far from the general character of the average musician that the mind boggles. It is, after all, their job. Unlike singers, they have a lot of extra equipment to stash: resin, chin rags, mutes, reeds, piccolos, bass clarinets, etc. Thank goodness for opera with its orchestra pit. And why exactly are you staring at them in the first place?  Now if you want to scold them for reading comic books during the performance, I might understand.  Only brass players seem to do this sort of thing.  The performance starts when the conductor enters.]

7. Venues that are pleasant, welcoming, comfortable to sit in, well managed, not too cold, not too hot and reasonably atmospheric have an edge over places that are not. 

[I live in a place where you take what you can get.  One can always wish.]

8. How deeply and how well the musicians understand and convey what they are playing. 

[And this is number 8? Jesus H. Christ, as we say here in America.]

 9. Good acoustics. 

[Not so easy to find. I support fully the journalist carping about the acoustics. Maybe it might help eventually. People tend to have the venues they have. They don't live in London.]

10. Going to some. 

 [At last.  Something we can agree on.  It is quite shocking how little we do agree on.]

Dr. B:  

This whole discussion completely misses the point.  Perhaps where she lives the halls are always full.  Shocking to me when I was in London was the fact that the major orchestras just do one or two performances a month and not the series of four in a row, week in, week out, we normally do here.

The point of worrying about what anyone wears and how they look when they are performing is to create buzz.  Try to get your group into the papers.  I read about Measha Bruggergosman not wearing shoes and immediately went out to hear her perform.  She was amazing.  And, yes, I spent a lot of the time trying to see her feet under her dress.

Look around you.  See all that gray hair.  See all those empty seats.  This is a problem.  It is a problem that is not solved by just telling people to go to a concert.

I write about hot opera singers so people will know the performers are not all fat ladies with horns.  Classical music can be fun and exciting.   Come out and see.

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