why are classical musicians and conductors so quiet?

November 9, 2011 at 02:57 PM · Does anyone know why in classical concert performances, there is rarely any verbal interaction between the performers and the audience? I've been at roughly 100 performances of major orchestras, soloists, mostly in chicago, and london, and on only 2 occasions did the conductor, or soloist, talk to the audience. One was Christopher Hogwood, most recently Hillary Hahn (which was an absolutely outstanding performance in every way). Granted we all go to hear the music, and don't want to hear a long speech, but a few sentences on the background of the music, or the performers view of it, helps to engage and entertain the audience that much more. Pop/rock concerts use this strategy often. not sure why its missing from classical music performances.....

Replies (35)

November 9, 2011 at 04:01 PM · If you are going mostly to concerts of ensembles that have a large and committed (and relatively knowledgeable) audience, then I'm not surprised at the "quiet musician" phenomenon. In my orchestra, where we are struggling to hang on to our audience base, and even trying to expand it, the conductor speaks to the audience 1 hour before the concert (for anyone who wants to show up 1 hour early), and then some more during the concert itself --- not necessarily before every single piece, but certainly during every concert. Now when I go to concerts by other orchestras and there's no talking, I sort of miss it.

November 9, 2011 at 04:15 PM · The last two symphony performances I've been to were both at Strathmore in Maryland with the Baltimore Symphony and Marin Alsop. The one in 2009 was part of the world premieres for the Higdon concerto with Hilary Hahn and the last one was this past February doing Shosty 5 with a short lecture beforehand. Both concerts Marin Alsop spoke to the audience about the pieces.

November 9, 2011 at 04:15 PM · I guess when I go to hear an orchestra concert, I'm there to hear music, not monologues from the performers. That's what the after-party is for! :)

November 9, 2011 at 05:47 PM · I have been to both venues with the Baltimore Symphony and heard Marin Alsop address the audience. It is a very smart move. Most younger people today have not been educated in classical music/composers (ex. my daughter's friends, their friends, and families)and literally don't know the background of the scores being played.

Once enlightened, they take an interest in the music. Even our Community Orchestra conductor would take some time to explain a piece before it was played. If Orchestras want to survive, I think they will have to interact more with the audience. It's just a good business move. An educated audience can turn out to be a supportive audience.

--Ann Marie

November 9, 2011 at 06:53 PM · They should be more vocal and animated. Maybe they could all stand immediately after performing one of the classics and yell something profane at the audience while simultaneously grabbing their crotch? How surreal that would be.

November 9, 2011 at 07:05 PM · I always grab my crotch and yell, "F^#^ck%n AA! Hot $%#t!" when I watch the Orchestra at the Kimmel Center. I follow that up with, "Yo, Adrienne!"

November 9, 2011 at 07:11 PM · Last night I saw Gil Shaham perform two partitas and one sonata- gorgeous performance. Anyway, he spoke for several minutes before starting. He has made some unorthodox decisions about tempi, and took the time to explain how he had gotten to his decisions, complete with short musical illustrations from the sonatas and partitas as well as other Baroque pieces. (The rest of the concert was presented very formally.) The audience seemed very receptive to his comments.

November 9, 2011 at 07:39 PM · In my opinion, the performers need to speak more. As an audience member, I get much more into the music if they do. About a year ago, we had Rachel Barton Pine play the Bruch Concerto in g minor with our community orchestra. She talked about her recent projects, the piece, and her violin. It was great listening to her and an honor to play with her. But these conversations took place during the Q&A session before the concert, so you had to arrive earlier to listen. She also took questions from the audience. It was great!

I guess you could always get information from the playbill/ brochure they give out or talk to them afterwards during the reception or autograph session. But I think it misses that nice touch.

Our director says some interesting about the piece which is nice, but it's relatively short. Also during our last summer concert he had some orchestra players speak about the pieces we played, which was a good decision, being a community orchestra and all.

November 10, 2011 at 01:50 PM · Sir Thomas Beecham once turned to the audience and said this....

"Ladies and gentlemen, in upwards of fifty years of concert-giving before the public, it has seldom been my good fortune to find the programme correctly printed. Tonight is no exception to the rule, and therefore, with your kind permission, we will now play the piece which you think you have just heard."

Ah, where are the great ones of today?

Cheers,

Sandy

November 10, 2011 at 02:06 PM · When performing a concert with the New Violin Family Orchestra link to the NVFO channel on YouTube I always give a short talk to the audience to introduce the instruments. If there is an unusual or polytonal piece, our conductor will often explain and have sections in the ensemble play excerpts to help the audience listen into the piece. We were really unsure about this approach when we first started since, as the OP has pointed out, such verbal communication was rare in concerts by other, more traditional, ensembles. Much to our surprise, we received many favorable comments from the audience afterward. We now do this all the time, which helps to educate many listeners about music. I was surprised (probably shouldn't have been) at how many people who come to concerts regularly have very little depth beyond their liking for certain pieces or composers.

November 10, 2011 at 02:09 PM · Bravo, Robert.

November 10, 2011 at 02:40 PM · A word of warning ...

It is very dangerous to encourage conductors to speak. Often in rehearsals the bad ones speak far too much. (wink)

But yes, informed discussion before, (and even during) and after a concert can help to educate audiences, and even the muscians taking part.

November 10, 2011 at 03:11 PM · Explanation of something out-of-the-ordinary is welcome. But for goodness sake, please do NOT recite poetry.

November 10, 2011 at 03:55 PM · Even for conductors fuzzy and warm,

Talking to audiences isn't the norm,

Cause the simplest terms used

Appear strange and confused

When explaining sonata form.

November 10, 2011 at 05:00 PM · Just went to a piano recital by Jan Lisiecki and he spoke delightfully. Explained why he had chosen the pieces he had and what they meant to him. He got it just right, enough talking to inform us and allow his delightful personality to shine through and not so much that we got uncomfortable waiting for the music.

November 11, 2011 at 02:17 PM · John: I agree. The announcer comments you quoted are unforgivable. I don't know where you are located, but see if you can pick up WFMT, Chicago's classical music station (also on the web and some other networks). Highest quality classical station in the world. They do talk about the composers, pieces, and performers, but it is of the highest quality, professionalism, and dignity. Give a listen (if you can find the station). I think you might change your mind.

Sandy

November 11, 2011 at 05:42 PM · Could it be that the radio announcer was promoting a homosexual agenda in making the no girlfriends comment? Putting the suggestion that the composer was a homosexual?

November 11, 2011 at 06:01 PM · Later this month my chamber orchestra, augmented by brass, woodwind and percussion, will be giving the first public performance of an exciting new work – a double-bass concerto. The piece is very modern (is "post-modern" the word I want?) and may be difficult for some of the audience – it's certainly difficult enough in places for the orchestra. We have therefore every expectation that our conductor will explain things to the audience beforehand, as he has done in the past. Btw, I believe I am not alone in the strings in being grateful on this occasion for the backup of brass, woodwind and percussion! Anyway, we'll all be relaxed by Haydn's 103rd to finish.

November 11, 2011 at 06:43 PM · I saw Sir Thomas Beecham conduct the Chicago Symphony the year before he died. He was old and frail, and sat on a stool on the podium. After every piece, he would motion the orchestra to stand, and then he would get up (with some difficulty) and take a modest little bow.

After about the 3rd encore, when he motioned the orchestra to stand, they refused and motioned him to stand. The audience applauded wildly; it was a nice moment. Beecham then turned to the audience, bowed, and motioned everyone to sit down and be silent.

And then, out of this frail body, came his booming voice (with that classic British accent): "You know, you have a wonderful orchestra here in Chicago. But there is one thing they haven't learned....OBEDIENCE!!!"

November 11, 2011 at 08:23 PM · Peter said

"It is very dangerous to encourage conductors to speak. Often in rehearsals the bad ones speak far too much."

I'm finding myself in agreement with him far too much! Yes, the good ones can say it with the stick. Once, after a rehearsal, we were chatting in the pub with Bryden (Jack) Thomson and somebody asked him "Jack, why do you conduct the opening like that?" "I don't really know" he said "I've just found it gives me the sound I want".

Certainly beats a 5-minute description!

November 11, 2011 at 08:45 PM · I don't know whether I am agreeing or disagreeing with you in sharing the following, but I have a book of quotes by Sir Thomas Beecham in rehearsals, which include:

"The singers think they're going to be heard, and I'm going to make jolly well certain that they are not."

"Forget about bars. Look at the phrases, please. Remember that bars are only the boxes in which the music is packed."

(to a trombone player) "Are you producing as much sound as possible from the quaint and antique drainage system which you are applying to your face?"

"Come on, brass, give 'em hell!"

"I do not intend to bother about the passage at No. 6. It has never been heard yet and I doubt whether it ever will be."

"Gentlemen in the clarinet department, how can you resist such an impassioned appeal from the second violins? Give them an answer, I beg you!"

With charm, genuine wit, knowledge, experience, and a touch of the devil, Beecham made his point and coaxed his orchestras to give their best. Music making is a re-creative art, not the rote actions of robots. If speaking to an audience or the orchestra furthers that art, it is the right thing to do. If talking shuts down the experience of that art, it is not the right thing to do.

November 11, 2011 at 11:28 PM · ok, so most replied that some amount of verbal interaction during a performance is postive, a few indicated a dislike for it..........but no one answered my question, be it known or speculative.......from at least my experience with major orchestra's, why the silent treatment?

November 12, 2011 at 12:42 AM · Maybe a lot of conductors fear that they might prove themselves to be ignorant about the score and want to keep quiet about it ...?

November 12, 2011 at 01:38 PM · Sander - love those Beecham-isms! Have any more? Leonard Bernstein liked to talk from the posium - and not just at his Young People's Concerts.

When I give a recital I usually like to talk to the audience a bit. That is not the time for a long musicological lecture. Rather, just a few tidbits about what I'm going to play and sometimes my personal connection with the music. I find that this really helps forge a connection between me and the audience. I don't want anyone there who is not a habitual classical concert goer to feel the least bit intimidated, and just getting some idea from me about the music - and the fact that I'm human, and not just a playing machine! - really helps them feel that they can get it. This is based on direct feedback that I've received many times over the years. But I've also gotten some good feedback about my short talks (usually just a couole of minutes or less) from fellow professionals.

November 12, 2011 at 02:22 PM · some are better talkers than others, therefore they have the gift to deliver something, add to something, when they talk. many people do not feel that comfortable talking in public,,,

most of the stuff orchestra play have been played time and again, and most listeners are familiar with them. in that setting, i think it is best to let the playing do the talking and not to interfere with listeners' own interpretations.

November 12, 2011 at 04:31 PM · I think it's mostly about tradition, going back to the days of musician-as-high-priest, and back beyond that to the days of musician-as-servant.

Probably it's also an issue of concentration. Talking right before you have to play a concerto or conduct a symphony can be very distracting, if you aren't used to thinking about it as a way to encourage the audience to share your experience.

For these reasons, and probably others, musicians have generally tended to avoid talking before concerts or between pieces. However, it's a great way to forge (or strengthen) a connection with your audience. Ensembles have tended to resist doing it unless/until they find themselves struggling to maintain the size of their audience. Then they realize that it's a good way to connect with audiences and -- this is important -- IT DOESN'T COST ANYTHING, so they decide to give it a try. The feedback is usually overwhelmingly positive (if the conductor is not too socially handicapped), and so a new tradition is born overnight.

But again, the ensembles with large, established, and relatively knowledgeable audiences -- audiences that are usually located in big cities -- don't generally need to do it. (Or they limit it to their "informal classics" series.)

November 12, 2011 at 07:37 PM · Raphael: Yes, those Beecham-isms are great. I have small paperback called "Beecham Stories" which was published decades ago in (I think) England. I picked up a copy years ago in the Toronto airport, and it's been a treasured possession ever since. See if you can find it (I haven't been able to find an updated copy yet). Beecham's take on everything from television to Hitler to harpsichords ("Sounds like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.") are, to say the least, entertaining, and many of them are dead serious and reflect the unconventional wisdom and wit of a unique genius.

November 13, 2011 at 01:13 AM · As long as we're doing Beechamisms: I once studied (briefly) with someone who had played under Beecham, and he provided an eyewitness classic:

They were rehearsing La Boheme, and Beecham's mistress of the moment was singing Mimi. In the final scene, she stopped the rehearsal to say "oh, Thomas darling, can't you do something about this staging? I can't sing flat on my back like this."

"Thomas darling" replied, "Indeed? I understood that you'd had some of your greatest successes in that position."

(No word on what happened next.)

November 13, 2011 at 01:47 PM · That reminds me of one performance of Boheme I was playing for - the bed collapsed! The two fellows kneeling by her bed were desparately trying to hold it in place , and poor Mimi was left at an angle gripping the side of the bed to avoid falling off. And she still managed to sing it. But not quite the tragic ending Puccini envisaged. Very difficult for those of us in the pit as well.

November 13, 2011 at 02:44 PM · "Mimi" in the La Boheme rehearsal may have been the soprano Dora Labbette, who gave Sir Thomas a son.

"Beecham Stoies" (by Sir Yehudi Menuhin) is still available from Amazon (.com and .co.uk).

Some Beecham stories here, and his opinion of the composer Vaughan Williams is evident

November 13, 2011 at 03:14 PM · i agree with the statements above.

but i remember my conductor talks to the audience for several times to re-introduce the solist or guest stars. :)

November 13, 2011 at 05:04 PM · the conductor of the orchestra (flint symphony orchestra)in my city always talks to the audience and makes them laugh a bit

November 13, 2011 at 05:18 PM · So much "classical" music was written in the days when musicians were lackeys, with the same status as downstairs skivvies. They weren't supposed to talk to the important folk that paid them. Even Ludwig Spohr was not allowed to ramain in the room and talk to the auduence - the player was expected to perform, bow, scrape, then retreat. I suppose the habit was hard to break, along with the custom of wearing those ridiculous tail-suits.

November 13, 2011 at 05:21 PM · Pre-concert talks are usually distinct from the perfomance itself, at least in the UK. Frosty decorum remains at the concert itself, as a general rule, see above !!

November 16, 2011 at 03:12 PM · Tradition and social awkwardness probably both play a role. That is actually quite alright with me -- brief comments, yes, if you have something genuinely interesting to add; if not, that's what the program notes are for. Too many people just stand up and repeat what they already put in writing. We've all been to concerts where somebody will-not-for-the-love-of-all-that-is-holy-shut-UP (pops concerts are the worst because it seems almost obligatory to yap after every number). I think the only time I felt like the audience really needed some explanation was when I was in a quartet and forgot to bring my concert clothes.

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