I’m skating on thin ice with this post! The classical music world is surprisingly small, after all, and anydisparaging talk about conductors, even in the most anonymous terms, is likely to trickle back to the source. For my sake (I like to get hired back for gigs I play!), please keep the following points in mind while reading this post:
- Though I am thinking of one conductor in particular for this exmple, I’ve seen this kind of phenomenon happen in many orchestras, and I believe that the behavior of the musicians described in the following paragraphs (I’m making you curious, right?) is a natural orchestral musician response to long-winded conductors. Is this a fair response? Immature? Jocular good fun? That’s for you to decide–but it is a very common occurrence in the orchestra!
- I actually think that a verbose conductor can be a real asset to a performance, and that it often really enhances the audience experience in the abstract; in reality, however, I become one of the squirrelly musicians I’m describing. I just can’t help myself. want to play when I’m on a gig, and any extra talk keeps me from doing the job that I was hired to do….even though I realize that this is a valuable part of the performance and something that should happen.
Hurry up and wait
As the 8:00 p.m. downbeat approaches, the orchestra slowly congregates onstage, with musicians warming up on passages from the evening’s performances, chatting with stand mates, and getting into the zone for the evening’s performance. By 7:50 p.m., the entire ensemble is onstage, bows moving in a flurry of notes, reeds being tested in search of the most agreeable option for the evening, and brass players warming up on sustained passages.
The lights dim and the concertmaster enters to applause from the audience. He tunes the orchestra, then seats himself in anticipation of the conductor’s entrance.
Finally the conductor emerges, tails swishing as he makes his way to the podium. The audience bursts into applause.
But wait…something is wrong…horribly wrong….
The conductor is carrying a …..microphone!
Out comes the stopwatch
In one particular orchestra, every time the conductor gets up to speak, watch timers are set. How long will the audience chat last this time? Musicians in the back (always pay attention to the bass players, percussionists, and brass player’s, conductors–they’re sure to be up to trouble!) take bets on how much talking will take place before the first note is played.
30 minutes (heaven forbid)?
With this particular ensemble, the norm is around 30 minutes of conductor talking for the total concert (about 20 minutes for the first half and 10 minutes for the second half). We’ve gotten away with only 15 minutes of talking on occasion and have endured an agonizing 45 minutes on rare occasions.
Though this is obviously an extreme example, it is a common occurrence in ensembles ranging from community orchestras to Top-Ten professional ensembles.
Adding to the annoyance of the orchestra musicians is the fact that this ensemble not only features extensive program notes for all the works but also has a pre-concert lecture before the concert. What then, is this next chat? The post-pre-concert lecture? After all, if folks wanted this much lecturing, there are a lot of excellent music appreciation classes available at area colleges. I mean, do basketball games feature a lecture on the history of the game and how the Chicago Bulls did x, y, and z in the 1970s? Do rock concerts feature program notes, a pre-rock lecture, and a lengthy lecture from the stage before a note is played?
In many ways, Leonard Bernstein is to blame with the massive popularity of his youth concerts. Though these were not the normal format for a Bernstein concert (he actually preferred to start with music, not talking), his influence opened the door for lectures from the podium.
What do you think about verbose conductors?
I’m playing devil’s advocate in the preceding paragraphs, of course. Classical music concerts are not like basketball games (or are they?), audience members usually love getting a little background on the music they’re about to hear (or do they?), and this kind of activity humanizes all those tuxedoed penguins and strengthens the bond between performer and audience (or does it?).
Actually, I have no idea what audiences like. I’m so deep into this business that I can’t really get an outsider’s perspective, so I’ll put out the following question (keeping in mind that many blog readers also happen to be music insiders like me!):
What Conductors Want
Orchestral players have been trained to play their instrument. They have been hired to play their instrument. They play concerts to have an opportunity to play their instrument. They may also be musical intellectuals (i.e. music theory or history buffs), or they may be “music jocks” who choose to play music for reasons similar to why someone would play baseball or basketball. Regardless of their depth of music intellectualism, when actually at a concert they are there to perform, to do something, not to talk about something.
Conductors often have more complicated agendas for concerts than that of orchestra players. As the guiding force behind a program, conductors seek to educate and enlighten as well as entertain, and they have put a great deal of thought (the good ones have, at least!) into each piece and how they all tie together thematically and programatically.
In addition to just playing the notes (not that this is an insignificant task!), conductors often choose to make some remarks to the audience on the works performed, including:
- history of the pieces
- reasons for programming them
- biographical information about the composers
- why these pieces were chosen for this particular program
- how these pieces complement each other or relate to each other
This is not to say that orchestra musicians don’t know or care about the aforementioned topics, but most performers want to perform and not talk about performing when they’re suited up in their tails. It’s a universal instinct.
Orchestra musicians know exactly what I’m talking about here, but perceptive audience members can pick up on this as well. Just look at the faces of various orchestra musicians the next time the conductor begins a podium lecture. Though most professional orchestra musicians are adept at keeping poker faces onstage, there are bound to be a few people who unintentionally broadcast all their inner thoughts through their body language, and it’s fun to watch them visibly wilt as the conductor begins to speak.
The Audience Perspective
When I’m in the audience and not onstage, my perspective shifts dramatically in this regard. Rather than twiddling my thumbs while my bass and fingers slowly grow cold, I listen intently to the conductor’s thoughts and observations, and I really feel that it enhances my experience. Some conductors are better speakers than others, of course, and I also really enjoy concerts where no stray syllable is uttered from the podium, but under the right circumstances I really enjoy how “podium-speak” enhances the overall aesthetic experience of the evening.
Look–we’re not rehearsing repeatedly and then getting suited up and driving to the hall simply to please our fellow musicians (if that were the sole objective we could all just stay home and play chamber music with colleagues in our living rooms). We’re going through this whole process for the audience, and we’re usually only one of many reasons why an audience member chooses to go to a performance.
Musicians can easily develop tunnel vision when it comes to concerts. This is understandable–we spend countless hours practicing at home and rehearsing as an ensemble to hone our individual and collective craft for performances, and it makes sense that we see our concerts as a critical happening in our community.
For the average bloke, a concert is only one of many possible entertainment and nightlife options, and it is rotated with attendance at movies, plays, sporting events, and other evening activities. We musicians are lucky if an average (non-performer) person even considers coming to a concert!
If they do make the decision to attend a concert, the event itself, while certainly the centerpiece of the evening, only one of many components that make up a satisfying “night on the town.” Many other factors come into play for audience members on concert night, including:
- Dressing up – sporty? classy? nuevo chic?
- Dinner – Italian? Greek? French?
- Socializing – Will the Fergusons be there tonight? How about the Gustafsons? And isn’t their son Theodore adorable! Maybe he’ll come as well…
- Soloist – Who’s playing? Are they famous?
- Conductor – Is the music director conducting? A guest conductor?
- Pre-concert lecture – Do we go? Is it interesting? Will the Gustafsons be there as well?
Audience members, most of whom are not trained classical musicians, generally take in a concert as part of an overall evening of entertainment and socializing, and learning a little more about the history and context behind the pieces on the program can greatly enhance their comprehension and make for a deeper and more valuable aesthetic experience. Commentary from the actual conductor, when delivered skillfully, can really add a lot to the audience’s enjoyment.
Though I often wince when I see the dreaded microphone in the hands of one of my conductors, intellectually I understand why this banter can be valuable. When I have my bass in my hands, I want to perform, not talk about it. But I realize that, i the right hands, podium lectures can be a valuable asset to the audience’s concert experience.
Then again, maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Let me know what you think about podium talks, both from the musician and audience perspective!