Why Talk?

Why do some Conductors feel they must TALK to the Audience?

I recently heard a performance of the Schoenberg Theme and Variations for band which was preceded by the conductor describing briefly for the audience that fact that this was a set of variations, after which he proceeded to perform the unaccompanied theme at the beginning of the composition. Then, with no further comments, he began conducting the actual performance.

But why did the conductor feel obligated to do this? The audience came to hear music, the experience of music. But now this audience had been made to feel they must instead listen to a compositional technique and worse they are set up to feel they are failures in the event they cannot hear this theme at all times. But the question, ‘Why?’, remains unanswered.

Did this conductor really prefer that the audience focus on picking out the theme in the Third Variation, instead of being moved by the profound expression of pain and sorrow, deriving from the composer’s experiences with World War II? No, surely no musician would elect to rob the listeners of such a priceless moment in favor of concentrating on dry academicism. Or did this conductor believe that “uneducated” listeners could not “understand” this music without his introduction? No, all conductors know that it is the genetic characteristics of music which make music understandable to all mankind and that this is why we say “music is the international language.” Indeed it is the reverse which is true: it is the things which music can “say” that language cannot that make music so important to humanity.

But clearly, this conductor on some basis arrived at the point that he believed he was helping the performance to follow. More likely, he accomplished the reverse, and certainly so in the case of anyone who paid attention to him and sat in their chairs employing the rational part of their brain instead of that part of themselves to which the music itself was addressed. For those listeners, he ruined the performance. I recall a similar case of a live performance by a major conductor and major orchestra which began with the conductor telling the audience how fortunate they were that they were going to be part of a very special evening and pleading with them to be especially quiet as the following performance was being recorded “live” for an important subsequent commercial recording. In the first bar the solo trumpet performed a cataclysmic missed note, a forte smashed attack which echoed throughout the hall. There was an immediate and enormous sense of let-down among the audience for everyone had the immediate feeling that this concert was all for nothing, as clearly this performance could not be used as intended.

In both of these examples the audience was very unfairly treated psychologically and musically. We say unfairly because in fact the audience is completely equipped genetically to understand music. By talking to them about any aspect of the theory of music we embarrass them because the implication is given that this is something they should know or need to know in order to understand music. This is why one so often hears an adult begin a sentence by saying, “Of course I don’t know anything about music, but….” It is a completely unnecessary embarrassment because it is not true. Even those of us who are highly trained musicians do not listen to the theory, or the grammar, of the music. When listening to the performance of a Beethoven symphony not one of us sits there and thinks to himself, “Hmm! A first inversion sub-dominant chord with a 7th!”

But why does any conductor feel he must talk to the audience? I do not recall Bruno Walter speaking to the audience, nor Fritz Reiner, nor Eugene Ormandy, nor von Karajan nor Solti. But I have heard a university orchestra conductor speak for nearly as many minutes as the duration of the composition itself, playing fragments of themes and alerting the audience that in measure 164 they will hear this theme upside down, etc. Why would a conductor feel he must do this?

We suspect that in many cases the conductor feels obligated to resort to language because he has a certain lack of faith in the ability of music to speak for itself. This mirrors a frequently observed clinical curiosity having to do with our bicameral brain. Because the right hemisphere of the brain (where the experience of music is found) lacks its own complete facility with language, the left hemisphere must speak for it. But since the left hemisphere really has little or no knowledge of what goes on in the right hemisphere it tends to go so far as to deny that the right hemisphere even exists. A familiar example of this is when we make a decision on an emotional basis, and not on a rational basis, and are asked why we made the decision we did. Since only the rational left hemisphere, where the language to answer the question lies, can answer for this right hemisphere choice, it denies that the decision had any actual basis at all by having you answer, “I did it on a hunch.”

What the conductor must come to grips with, and believe, is the fact that 40 years of clinical study has clearly established the fact that the right hemisphere exists as a separate form of understanding, equal to but apart from the traditional language of the left hemisphere. To the extent that the question is, Who is the real us?, the right hemisphere is clearly more reflective of the individual than the left hemisphere. It is also very important to understand that the right hemisphere does not lie; lies are found only in the left hemisphere.

With respect to music, we stress once again that it is the right hemisphere, the experiential side of the listener which understands music, not the rational side. If that were not the case we would not have concerts at all, we would have people going to the store to buy scores to take home to read. And it is for this reason, because music is going to communicate to the listener all by itself, that programming becomes so important. If a conductor has put together a program of music unworthy of public performance, it is no wonder he feels some compulsion to talk his way out of it.

Now let us consider some other familiar circumstances in which conductors seem obligated to talk to the audience.

To Make the Audience like You and the Ensemble knowing in advance it is going to be a weak Performance.

Sorry! Too Bad! It won’t work. A concert does not have a score like a ball game. We can’t please an audience by a score of 60 to 40. It is a cruel and inevitable fact that an audience will find a concert either good or bad. There is no middle ground at all and no audience member ever said, “It was almost a good concert.” The reason for this is again all wrapped up in genetics. The audience knows whether a concert is good or not and they cannot be fooled. Neither can their judgment be tempered by giving them a lot of excuses – we lost some rehearsal time, some students had to miss rehearsals, this music is very difficult, etc., et. al. Max Krone, the founder of the Idyllwild Music Camp in California many years ago, had painted on the wall of the concert stage, “The Audience does not ask How Hard it is, only How Good it is!”

You might succeed in making yourself likable and we often hear an adult say, “Oh he is such a nice man and he talks to the audience….” Well, take pleasure where you can but don’t expect this feeling to have any influence on their judgment of your concert whatsoever.

Welcoming Speeches

I personally never walked out on stage and thanked the audience for coming or welcomed them. I think, in part, it is because I assume they are there for their own purpose, like people who anticipate and then go to church. It seems equally curious to me to hear a priest thank the congregation for coming to Mass. A more serious problem is again a Right-Left brain problem. Beginning a concert with talking changes the atmosphere and context of concentration from the perspective of the audience. After the speech they must immediately “change gears” in terms of the receptivity of their minds. I believe it is difficult to do. And again, no one ever heard Solti thank the audience for coming.

But I can accept that others may feel obliged to welcome the audience before the concert begins. But if one does this, then one must take this into account in program planning. One should not begin by appearing so happy, and being so happy that the audience came, and the students are so happy to see them, happy and happy and then immediately plunge the listeners into the almost unbearable weight of a 1,000 years of pain and suffering by the Russian people by beginning the concert with Marche Slav by Tchaikowsky. This reminds me of the first performance in Meinningen of the Beethoven 9th Symphony by Hans von Bulow. At the enthusiastic applause at the end, Bulow turned to the audience and said, “I am so happy to see that you like this masterpiece that I am going to play it again. And don’t bother to try to leave because I have ordered the doors locked!” To imagine having to sit another 90 minutes is one thing, but it is almost unimaginable to think of going from that incredibly joyous ending back one more time to the dark and foreboding first movement!

On rare occasions the reverse problem comes into play. An ensemble has programmed a lively and happy composition to begin the program but during the course of the day some widely known figure has died. Because a concert is ipso facto a celebration of the spirit, a “celebration” may seem inappropriate on such a moment, to both musicians and audience. This is why often in such cases a special number is added and played first, something such as Bach’s Come Sweet Death, in honor of the person who died. This allows the audience to have some sense of personal emotional connection with the event of the day and in the process a kind of catharsis which in turn helps clear their concentration for the concert.

I know a conductor who has a habit of always inviting a composer who is in attendance to come up before his work is performed and say a few words to the audience. This no doubt is well intentioned, but I do not recommend it. The music of a composer is an extremely personal thing which comes from the deepest reaches of his experiential self. There are no words to describe his music, any more than there are words to describe love. And so inevitably the composer appears rather at a loss for words, ill at ease if not embarrassed, and will never say anything deeply personal about his music. He is much more likely to try to say something funny, which may have an adverse affect on the psychological receptivity of the listener.

It is much better to bring the composer up on stage after the performance of his composition, for this will increase and prolong the applause — convincing him, human nature being what it is, that the audience really liked his composition. He will be even more happy, will be proud rather than embarrassed and will feel even more indebted to you and the ensemble.

Oral Program Notes

In general it is the purpose of the printed program to introduce guest conductors, guest composers and guest soloists. When the lights dim, signaling the beginning of the concert, it is time for listening to music not talk. Or, to say that differently, do not confuse the left hemisphere’s moment (talking and the printed program) with the right hemisphere’s moment (hearing and experiencing music).

There may be rare occasions when the conductor may want to share with the audience something relevant to the next composition to be heard which is information which should perhaps not be set in print – where it will survive forever. As an illustration, I recall first hearing the Angel’s Camp by Charles Cushing and being deeply moved. After the concert I immediately sought him out to ask if I could obtain the parts for a performance of my own. I found a composer greatly offended by the performance we had just heard and he declared that as long as he lived he would never again let anyone perform his music! And, in fact, I had to wait ten years until after his death in order to obtain the materials from the family in order to perform the work and to begin to spread the word of this sublime masterpiece. I decided to tell this to my audience in order that they could share in how important this performance was to me, but it is not a story suitable for publication in the program notes.

The Conductor feels a need to Educate the Audience

One often hears or reads concern that all performers have an urgent need to “educate” the audience. Certainly, with current estimates suggesting that perhaps only 2% of the American public listens to Classical Music, this concern is self-evident. But, in this regard we cannot escape our bicameral nature. It must be music and its performance, which speaks for the importance of music – not rational words. And, it follows, once again the issue of programming is of such vital significance. Only important aesthetic music can speak for the importance of aesthetic music. The listener judges on the basis of his own individual experiential history as a listener. The talker, the conductor, will always be outside and apart from the individual listener’s experiential history as a listener. His rational arguments will therefore have no affect on “educating” the listener. He would be much better advised to select the finest music he can find, music which communicates with power to the listener, and let music speak for itself.