V.com weekend vote: should the conductor or performer speak about a piece before it is performed?

June 11, 2023, 4:41 PM · Do you like it or not, when a conductor or performer speaks before a piece?

speaking from stage

Most symphony concerts have program notes, but occasionally the conductor will speak from the podium to explain something about the piece being played, its composer, the performers, etc. Sometimes it's just a few words, but sometimes it can go on for quite a while.

This can also be the case at recitals - performers sometimes speak from the stage..

This can be a good thing, when the speaking is easy-going, engaging, and contains just the right amount and right kind of information to pique everyone's interest. However, if audience members start looking at their watches, scrolling on their phones and rolling their eyes, then the speaking may have defeated its purpose.

Speaking from stage is its own skill, and not everyone has it. As a performer, it can be daunting. I can remember a recital I gave in which I was required to speak before each piece - I was more nervous for the speaking than for anything else about the performance!

In recent years, the ability to speak from stage has been given more emphasis in education. For example, at the Heifetz Institute, students are encouraged to speak from the stage, as a way of engaging with the audience, and they are actually given classes in public speaking and expression, so that they can learn to do it well.

For the vote, I'm interested in your own experiences. Do you generally perk up when someone starts speaking from stage, or do you roll your eyes? If you perform frequently, do you like to speak from the stage, and do you do so on a regular basis? Or do you prefer to let the music speak for itself? In your estimation, what makes a good on-stage intro? (Content? Length? Speaking skill?)

Please participate in the vote, based on your recent experiences, and then share your thoughts in the comments.

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June 11, 2023 at 10:17 PM · I voted "highly unusual situation." I am willing to drop the "highly" and accept speeches for just regularly unusual situations.

Example: When I was a teenager and Gerd Albrecht was the chief conductor of the the Tonhalle Orchestra he organized a "spring cycle" where he presented five new compositions (one per evening, combined with standard repertoire) that he had found the money to commission. He gave a speech before the performance of each of the hew pieces. He was very good at it and managed to communicate important aspects of the music he was going to conduct.

Maybe one should say: "you are allowed to speak if you have something to say that the audience does not already know and if you have the skill to say it properly" rather than make it dependent on the situation.

June 11, 2023 at 11:15 PM · I voted “something else” because this is so dependent on the piece, the audience, and the conductor. With an unfamiliar piece it’s almost always a good idea to make some brief remarks. I’ve heard some wonderful talks before extremely familiar pieces in which I learned something, and I’ve also heard talks that went on too long, had people cringing, and so on.

June 11, 2023 at 11:29 PM · I had the opportunity to hear Robert McDuffie perform Bernstein's "Symposium" and he spoke beforehand. His remarks were delightful and informative! He played the various themes while giving a brief synopsis of the story. It greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the piece. And it probably took about 3 minutes. That said, I find myself more often listening to conductors who go on far too long!

June 11, 2023 at 11:56 PM · I believe that some understanding of historical background is important in relating to a musical work. What was going on in a composer's life when he or she put ink to paper and produced the work about to be performed? Shostakovich's Trio in e minor (op 67) is one example. From a strictly musical standpoint, it is an interesting work; but when approached with the historical context of intensifying anti- Semitism throughout Europe, including Russia, during the 1940's, it packs an emotional wallop that will move an audience to tears.

June 12, 2023 at 12:43 AM · I agree with Mary Ellen.

June 12, 2023 at 01:11 AM · I voted "something else." It depends on the piece.

I think my current orchestra's conductor has the balance right, in general. He gives a 20-30 minute talk on the pieces, starting 45 minutes before the concert, so people who are interested can arrive early and hear a more detailed discussion than what they'll hear in the concert. During the concert itself, he normally conducts the first piece on the program with no preamble, then says a little about the pieces and the soloist (if any) in between the first and second pieces on the program. In those brief remarks, he rarely spends more than 30 seconds talking about a piece, and I don't think I've ever heard him talk about a single piece for longer than 60 seconds.

June 12, 2023 at 02:37 AM · I enjoy hearing about a performer’s experience in learning and playing a piece, and I often remember the details. I enjoy hearing about a guest performer’s experience with my local orchestra, which folded, restarted and is surviving. I enjoy conductors describing working on a piece with the orchestra. I sometimes hear that a speaker has done more research about a piece or a composer when s/he felt they needed to say more, and I appreciate that too. I also know that those who speak too long are simply wound up and anxious and I know how that feels. Silent performers don’t always build the same connection.

June 12, 2023 at 09:34 AM · As so often she does, Mary Ellen has hit the nail on the head. Children's and other concerts incorporating an educational aspect are almost always best accompanied by some spoken commentary (I attended a performance of Symphonie Fantastique in which the performers introduced each movement with spoken commentary).

If vocal music is involved, it can be useful - Even if the words are in the audience's language, diction is, more often than not, inadequate. (In Wagner, of course, and some operas, spoken commentary would have to be confined to the very beginning/end of each act).

June 12, 2023 at 01:54 PM · Lately, I've been watching YouTube videos of student quartets from Curtis. Curtis seems to require that their students talk about the music before performing it; each quartet member gets up to speak. I've gotten to the point of fast-forwarding through these speeches. They are so painful to watch. The students seem to have memorized them, and are not thinking about what they are saying while they are saying it, which makes them difficult to follow, and not at all compelling. In fact, yesterday I watched an uncomfortable student bumble through some sort of discussion of the influence of Immanuel Kant's philosophy on Beethoven string quartets. Not a subject to tackle unless you are confident and in control of the material. Public speaking seems like a useful skill for performers, but if Curtis is going to require it, they need to provide some coaching, just as they do for the playing!

On the other hand, I've seen Rachel Barton Pine and Gianandrea Noseda separately speak very compelling about the performances they were giving. Neither of them tried to lecture on esoteric philosophical points...

June 12, 2023 at 02:16 PM · What I find interesting is that speaking for many musicians is a challenge while performing is not. Perhaps that is because performing requires absolute concentration while speaking can draw the speaker into trying to read the audience rather than just presenting their thoughts.

As a "natural" public speaker I don't have a problem with focusing on anything other than my topic. However, I have been asked many times to teach others how to speak in public. I cannot do that as I have never had to learn how myself.

As to speaking before a performance, like all people, some musicians are great while others struggle. A good speaker will engage the audience, a poor speaker will have lost them before the downbeat. in the end it is up to the musician.

June 12, 2023 at 02:25 PM · I agree with Mary Ellen and everyone else. It's required at the Royal Conservatory of Music that recital students at least announce themselves and their piece before playing it. I coach them in this skill, giving them courage to speak out. One girl with a slight speech impediment already benefits from this. It only takes a few seconds. She says a little about a piece with interesting qualities or background and it takes maybe 1/2 a minute. When I used to perform, I did so myself. At first, I was nervous, but I believe it did connect me closer to the audience,

I agree too, that a "lecture" taking more than 5 minutes, is too much for an audience whose reason to attend is for the actual music.

June 12, 2023 at 04:00 PM · I voted "no, the program notes are enough." My preference is to judge a piece on ear value, without words or ideas to modify the experience. Sometimes I already know the program, because I bought the tickets based on that information. But sometimes I don't (especially at recitals and other chamber music), when sometimes I even try not to look at the relevant line in the program until AFTER the piece. To the extent that the music directly calls to me, I will read the notes. But I don't like putting my glasses on at concerts, so usually just ask my son "what was that?"

That said, when the composer himself is present, such as at concerts of new music by composition students at the Yale School of Music, I do enjoy the insight into their minds through their verbal introduction before the piece, because I'm interested in what's behind the almost-experimental sounds I hear at those concerts.

June 12, 2023 at 04:03 PM · we are continually bombarded by marketing, just get on with it....

June 12, 2023 at 04:13 PM · Speaking before the performance is purely optional and has more to do with the performers context than with mine. I like it when a favorite or insightful performer speaks to the audience, and I am indifferent to run-of-the-mill comments made by someone with a conventional or limited insight.

But even if I found it to get in the way, its for them to make the judgment about how to succeed in a tough market. To have the performances happen at all, I'll accept whatever their best judgment is about how to survive.

June 12, 2023 at 07:20 PM · I voted “unusual situation.” There’s a good example in the late Sir Rudolf Bing’s 5000 Nights at the Opera. Right before a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera, Bing, who was then General Manger, walked on stage in front of the curtain to announce that the leading lady, Birgit Nilsson, was fine - but that all three of the Met’s available lead tenors, the ones prepared to sing the role of Tristan, were ill. Even so, he said, these three performers, against doctors’ orders, had agreed to sing that night - one act each. Before walking off stage, Bing added: “Fortunately, the work has only three acts.”

June 13, 2023 at 05:31 PM · I wasn't sure which of the first two choices to vote for - I chose the second but both apply. I find that a brief description of the history of a piece increases my enjoyment of it and helps me connect with it, whether I'm in the audience or in the orchestra. I'll never forget a performance I attended of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. The conductor's description of the second movement - a mother mourning her deceased child and eventually setting its soul free - turned the piece into a spellbinding event.

To have an effective pre-performance talk, you must have a good speaker who can stay on topic and present informative and interesting information in a brief summary - a few minutes at most. Done right, it's the extra spice that brings out the flavour in a musical meal.

June 13, 2023 at 08:32 PM · Like anything, the little speech before performing the piece can be done well or poorly. Geoff Nuttall did it well.

Our regional symphony conductor, David Wiley, does it well too. Before the symphony performs, he often gives a 20-minute pre-concert discussion of the highlights of the program, where he sits at the piano and plays some of the key themes that people will hear (he's a professional pianist as well). After he's finished then they open the house to ticket-holders who aren't interested in that or don't have time. While people are taking their seats, they roll the piano off.

June 15, 2023 at 02:26 AM · I'm with Will. Let the music talk - then by all means talk after (and anyone that wants to leave can).

Why does everything now have to be reduced to the lowest level of interpretation? IMO if you don't understand it then go research it yourself. Speeches give one person's opinion of the piece and that detracts from my unique experience as I am then comparing what that 'authority' said to what I feel myself.

Its the same reason its often best to read a book before seeing a movie - the book evokes characters and scenarios in your head. Once you see 'the movie' I don't think you can ever have that experience.

June 15, 2023 at 06:16 PM · Much depends on who is doing the talking. If they are succinct and sincere, and absolutely understand their audiences' perspectives, then it's likely going to be a nice add on. If they like to use the words "I" "me" "my" a lot, and if they approach any talking points about the concert in the style of an academic, that's a hard pass for me.

Side note, I once was in an orchestra where the conductor spoke for 20 min before our first note. We tuned, then he spoke in a condescending tone basically repeating program note info....the audience was disgusted, as was the orchestra! People pay to hear music, not talking. A little talk goes a long way!

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