Following the text of a concert in a programme is all very well but audiences would do well to appreciate the visual aspects of a singer's performance, says Christopher Morley.
In a recent review I commented on the way audiences at concerts involving the human voice seem to be encouraged to take their eyes off whatever might be going on on stage and instead immerse themselves in their programmes in order to follow the text of the matter.
The event in question was a wonderful recital for Malvern Concerts by the tenor Mark Padmore, accompanied by pianist Julius Drake.
Neil Watkins also made a splendid horn contribution, but whenever he was performing there was, of course, an added visual element to jerk heads out of programmes.
Left to himself and his accompanist, Padmore gave us a compelling sequence of songs by Beethoven (not least the heartcatching ‘An die ferne Geliebte’) and Schubert, and his vocal delivery was complemented by the most vivid and expressive body-language; nothing fulsome – I would have been the first to castigate that – but everything totally geared towards facilitating communication of the work of art in performance.
Padmore’s facial expression altered in response to the emotions conjured by the text; hand movements, as well as aiding the singer’s delivery, added a visual element to what was being sung (the fisherman stirring the waters in Schubert’s ‘The Trout’ was but one case in point); a bonus was being able to witness the empathy between singer and pianist, taking cues from each other, ebbing and flowing with the music together.
Yet there were rows of heads stuck deep into programmes, glued to texts and not very good translations, instead of gaining an extra element of involvement from what Padmore was giving from the stage.
And how disheartening must it have been for Mark Padmore, giving his all to an audience of which he saw a great proportion consisting of heads thrust determinedly downwards in a misguided attempt to enhance their experience of the concert.
It’s the same with opera. I think surtitles (it took me years to persuade our sub-editors that I didn’t mean “subtitles”) are the greatest thing since sliced bread to add value to a visit to the opera-house.
We certainly need their translations in operas set in a foreign language, and equally we need them in English operas – I defy anyone to tell me that every word is audible across the footlights, even in English, and especially where the vocal tessitura is at its extreme, or the words extended into melisma.
But it’s neck-achingly awkward keeping your eyes both on whatever is happening onstage and following the commentary above the proscenium arch.
As the great Wagnerian soprano Rita Hunter once said to me, “it’s so disconcerting seeing all those faces pointing up to the ceiling instead of looking at you on the stage. It always takes me around a quarter of an hour to get used to it!”.
But this affliction is not merely confined to events where sung words are involved.
How about programme-notes? Programme-notes can be wonderful guides to explaining the context into which the music under performance was born, giving details of the composer, the milieu at the time of composition, documents chronicling the work’s reception, and all other kinds of fascinating historical detail.
What we do not need are complex apologias from contemporary composers accounting for whatever the influence has been (literary, visual, political, philosophical, astrological or whatever) upon every last demisemiquaver of their precious offering.
One recent concert was a spectacular example of this, and Private Eye’s ‘Pseuds’ Corner’ could easily be filled with such offerings.
Nor do we need the structural road-maps still beloved of too many programme-note scribes. Read programme-notes from decades long past and they will be full of references to “first subjects” and “transitions with enharmonic modulations” and all kinds of technical procedures unfolding as the music progresses.
“As the music progresses” – that is the key. We must actually engage our ears one hundred percent as the music progresses, not foolishly and probably unsuccessfully attempt to follow the wonders of what is happening around us within the jargon of a dry-as-dust note which will essentially convey no enthusiasm for the actual music at all.
If you cannot negotiate the long-winded semaphore you will feel you have failed, and the triumphant conclusion of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony will have passed you by in your abject attempts to keep up with the prognotes, the textual translations, and possibly the surtitles above the stage.
We must let the music speak for itself, and the musicians must be allowed to deserve our full concentration as they project their performance.
But I conclude with a remark about following the score during a performance, something I do now and again, partly to keep me on my toes in a work either very new to me, or one I know inside out and need a refresher, and partly to keep my bearings in a new piece.
The first reason is something I do willingly; the second is not so congenial, as notations are often difficult to decipher, and the actual binding of the score can cause noisy distractions to other listeners.
A critic has the convenience of seeing a new score during the days before performance, so he can do his homework. The listener at an “ordinary” symphony concert or operatic presentation?
It would be wonderful if programmes and texts could be downloaded in advance online, or posted to pre-bookers.
Then the actual reading of user-friendly programme-books could be confined to pre-concert and intervals, preferably over a drink.