> As one of my teachers, Dika Newlin said our aesthetics class, "it might
> be much better if we did not hand out programs at concerts." Perhaps
> then we might listen with less prejudice.
Good point. This is why Mahler stopped providing programs for his
symphonies. I myself am of two minds on the issue. With one mind I
believe that music ought to speak for itself just as novels and paintings
speak for themselves. (Well, don't they?) I like to think that people
can listen to my music and "get it" without my having to tell them what
it is supposed to mean. Most people do, but then my music is pretty
simple. My other mind suggests to me that many people really do need
some kind of pony when confronted with a new work. Not everybody hears
music purely as an abstract organization of sound. Many people need
some scenario or visuals to help them make sense out of it. In other
words, they want it to "mean" something. Composers have often made up
such sketchy programs to help new listeners. I see no harm in it unless
people come to believe that Bruckner really meant the 6th symphony to
depict a winter landscape, for example. Still, I suppose such imaginings
really are harmless when it comes right down to it. It does mystify me
when somebody sitting near me at a concert suddenly whips open a program
booklet in the dim light and tries to glean some necessary insight as
the music sweeps by. What can they possibly learn at that point?
Rather than program notes, I prefer to have the musicians talk directly
to the audience about the music they are about to perform. This can do
a lot toward creating a sense of "relationship" between performers and
audience. In January 2003, David Robertson brought the national orchestra
of Lyon to Seattle for two concerts. The second evening was devoted to
chamber orchestra work, and the main item was the Boulez "Originel." I
have never cared for Boulez and was prepared for the worst. Robertson,
however, took time to teach the work to the audience before playing it.
He never talked down to us, but with many musical examples, pointed out
what Boulez was doing. Robertson never once talked about what the music
meant, but stuck to the description of what was happening musically.
The teaching session lasted as long as the piece, but it was worth it.
In fact it is the only time I have come close to enjoying a Boulez
This kind of teaching would be tedious if it were done too often, but
with new and potentially difficult works, it could be immensely useful.
Of course, not everybody is David Robertson, and a bad presentation would
be worse than none. Nevertheless, some musicians can do it, and they
should be encouraged. I once heard Gerard Schwarz give a fine guided
tour before a performance of Ein Heldenleben, and people ate it up.
Geoffrey Simon did another excellent presentation with examples before
our recent production of Turangalila here in Seattle. It was very helpful
even to those of us who thought we knew the piece.
So in conclusion [about time!] I would wish for fewer program notes and
more intelligent teaching of works that could use it.
David Lamb in Seattle
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