Thursday, April 5, 2012

Audience vs. Recitalist

I receive more e-newsletters than I remember signing up for. Most of these e-newsletters are from music ensembles and arts organizations from various cities I have lived in, covering everything from upcoming performances to thoughts on the arts industry. I’ll admit I always give them a quick glance, as living in South Africa does tend to leave one feeling a bit isolated from the rest of the artistic world...

Last week an email caught my attention as I felt it raised several positive points yet at the same time, perpetuated one of the most common myths about programming music. I highly respect the organization that sent this particular e-newsletter and I write about it here only in that it represents a wide-spread misconception about the connection between the performer and the audience.

I was sitting in my husband’s office, killing time before a rehearsal, and I was giving my daily influx of e-newsletters a more thorough reading than usual. There was one that caught my eye as the subject was about how to pick your repertoire for a solo recital. I was intrigued that the advice was essentially that the main focus of your recital should be the audience, not you as a performer, and that one should push themselves as a performer, just so long as they didn’t push the audience too far in doing so.  I will say that the newsletter also stressed that in addition to the above, expanding one’s focus beyond giving a flawless performance will in turn help make a stronger connection with the audience. I agree whole-heartedly here as there are many ways to engage with the audience in addition to repertoire choice.

One of the frequent discussions (well let’s be honest, more like arguments) I have had with different ensembles is about what role the audience plays when programming a work. In my experience, there is no such thing as “the audience” in terms of a single entity; it is in reality a collection of individuals of whom one has little to no knowledge of their capability of perceiving any said work. Now this is not to say that certain concerts result in certain decisions, such as performing an educational concert for second graders or a retirement home at Christmas time. However, even these types of concerts do not necessarily mean the end of interesting programming. If your audience is all under the age of eight, than one probably should avoid performing nothing but lengthy slow movements, for instance.

But the crux of the matter is when the decision is entirely yours, should the audience really be the determining factor? With my own ensembles, I tried to steer away from “safe programming”, meaning that someone like me would be disappointed that the group didn’t take any chances and I would likely not become a repeat customer. I had the luxury of hearing the superb oboist Albrecht Mayer (principal of the Berlin Phliharmonic) perform a solo recital in Lucerne, Switzerland. To make it even better, I attended with a group of oboists and the excitement level was palpable from our back of the church seats. Not surprisingly, he was fantastic and it was a true joy to hear him in person (the only time I have ever been able to hear him live); however, I was a bit let down by the programming. He performed very typical recital works (I remember Saint-Saens and Schumann), which don’t get me wrong, are great works, especially the Schumann. But the house was packed because of his reputation; I felt he missed a chance to perform something even slightly more unusual or daring. Though he addressed the crowd in German, Mayer did speak about the works during the recital and by the little chuckles of laughter, it was clear that he had this Swiss audience eating out of his hand. I think he could have performed anything and they would have adored him.

Between the musician and the audience, I want the recitalist to be the most informed and education about the music being presented; they then should be able to convey this knowledge through a quality performance, as well as taking steps to further engage everyone involved. Recitals and self-programmed concerts are amongst the few ways that we can as artists have any real contribution to the greater artistic world. In an orchestra, we may play fantastic works but at the end of the day, someone else is choosing the music and we will simply whatever is put in front of us. I feel strongly that the musicians needs to make smart musical choices (yes, there are just as many sub-par contemporary works as there are baroque trio sonatas) but the audience needs to be told what is important, not the other way around. It is a unique chance to expose people to works they have never heard and chances are, if one can find ways to engage them, they will actually enjoy it. Not every recital needs to be a soap box for new works or transcriptions, but the audience should never hinder one’s artistic choices.

This newsletter certainly got me thinking about what my dream solo recital might look like and instantly two works came to mind: Steven Jaffe’s “Chamber Concerto” Singing Figures and Penderecki’s Capriccio. Both works are for solo oboe with small ensemble and are incredibly exciting and beautiful pieces. The Jaffe work is recorded by oboist Stephen Taylor and Speculum Musicae and is performed to perfection. It is scored for solo oboe, strings, piano and harpsichord/celesta; despite being a fantastic work that I would play in a heart-beat, the logistical factors of his orchestration might be a reason why it is not a main-stay on recital programs. Divided into three movements, the effort of finding all the keyboards is well worth it as there is some very interesting timbres created by these particular sounds mixing with the solo oboe. The Penderecki is a little more intense and requires some real commitment on the string players’ part. The character of this piece and the visual effect of the soloist set against this collection of string players would make for a very engaging experience for the audience.

Recitals are a requirement while one is studying but they become a sought-after luxury once you have graduated. They are a chance to yes, engage with the audience, but the method in which we do that is entirely our own and the audience plays no part in whether or not the performance was successful or not. How many times in history has a single music critic literally crippled a composer’s ability to write because of their perception of a single performance? A quality work is a quality work and in terms of its reception with an audience, it may run the gambit of loathed to universal appraised. Finding those ways to engage with the audience is critical, so long as we do not allow the audience to run the recital for us.