I had a great time seeing the New World Symphony (the ensemble, not the piece) at Carnegie last week. The playing was fantastic and it was fun seeing some old friends, who were all looking suspiciously tan. However, there was something strange about seeing an orchestra concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in which there was absolutely no interaction with the audience other than the music making. Of course, this is Carnegie Hall we’re talking about – where musicians and audiences are expected to be on their best behavior, lest they disturb the ghosts of the musical legends which haunt the terra cotta hallways and shush noisy patrons.
Still, I found it hard to separate MTT from the colorful personality that normally accompanies his concerts. I was missing that ‘TED talk’ tone of voice that he uses to convince you that Debussy and Lou Harrison totally belong on the same program. Not that a concert without talking is in any way unusual. In fact, the classical music community has been fiercely debating the whole nature of the traditional concert experience, especially its cache of seemingly antiquated customs which many claim are keeping young people away.
Despite this ongoing existential crisis, artists and organizations should be cautious in how they choose to shake things up. Paying audiences are there to see top notch performances, and any extra fluff can be annoying or even insulting. The music is so good, so why waste time with bad jokes or trivia? A common approach is the good old pre-concert speech. You know the one. Lights dim, orchestra tunes, audience prepares for a delightful Mozart symphony. Then the conductor turns around and switches on a microphone.
Now, in the past, nothing used to infuriate me more than when this would happen. Not because I don’t enjoy a good lecture, but because generally everything the speaker would say I had already read in the program notes, making the speech essentially a waste of time. So…when is there something meaningful to say to the audience?
Creating a convincing answer to this question is, essentially, the job of our beloved artistic administrators (excuse me…they are calling themselves curators now). As Maude Bass-Krueger notes in the linked article,
artistic administrators curators must work to “contextualize the work within its historical and socioeconomic framework.” That’s no easy task when applied to a classical music program, since music must have context relative to the time that it was written (long ago, usually) and the time that it is being performed (today).
So, when is there something meaningful to say to the audience?
This is where programming can get fun. How do we draw those parallels? Thanks to some trailblazing by established orchestras like the NY Philharmonic, and upstarts like the Knights Chamber Orchestra, audiences are more and more receptive to non traditional concert experiences geared towards exploring music in a more holistic setting. This could mean anything from performing a longer list of smaller, related pieces (bucking the overture-concerto-symphony trope), to multimedia extravaganzas which can add a whole new dimension to a performance.
So did the New World Symphony lose anything by forgoing any attempt at changing the ‘traditional concert experience?’ I don’t think so. The orchestra was on tour – far outside of its natural habitat of wall-casts, stadium seating, and palm trees. So instead it gave us what we came for: a brilliant performance of brilliant compositions. All in all, the music did a pretty good job of speaking for itself.