The Concert Talk Paradigm

I attended a concert in Berlin this week featuring a performance of Berg’s Lyric Suite, with an extensive pre-concert lecture given by the able Walter Levin. The lecture itself focused a good deal on pitch relationships, but it was definitely clear enough for most non-musicians, admirably so. In short, I thought that Levin’s talk was a resounding success; yet I couldn’t help but feel that the concert itself was far from successful.

The problem I’ve always had with most pre-concert talks of any serious length and/or depth is the inverse relationship between the quality of the talk and my desire to hear the subsequent performance; in this case, after nearly 75 minutes of speaking, performed excerpts, and slides, the last thing in the world that I felt like doing was sitting through a performance of the piece in question! Of course, this is not the intended effect, but I’ve rarely found that any analysis given before the complete performance of a piece has the effect of piquing my interest—although especially with new music, a brief introduction can often work wonders for the listener. And for listeners who haven’t heard the piece, I can’t imagine all that analysis would be particularly meaningful.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve always favored the post-concert talk, in which the listener hears the work to be discussed prior to a discussion of that work. Isn’t that a more natural progression? And I think that hearing Berg’s Lyric Suite again with no preamble would have been just the thing that might have geared me up for a long post-concert exploration of the great work—not the other way around.

But there’s no need to limit ourselves to the above dichotomy; for concerts with several works, what about optional 15-20 minute talks during intermission? That would be a great opportunity to dig a little deeper into the music on the first half of the concert while using it to set the stage for the second half. I’m sure that there are a host of other great paradigms for mixing music with talking about music. And looking back over some of Leonard Berstein’s Young People’s Concerts—particularly an episode in which musicians play discarded versions of a Beethoven symphony from the composer’s original sketches—I see the beginnings of a more interactive approach which could surely benefit from the plethora of technology available today.

I went to a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem on Friday, with a small group of non-musician music enthusiasts in tow. Everyone seemed to enjoy the performance but no one seemed to be terribly interested in talking about what they heard at coffee afterwards. Had we been at the theatre, a gallery, or even an opera they almost certainly would have been all a-titter; why not with concert music? Could it be because opportunities for non-initiates to witness examples of interesting and vigorous discussion of musical phenomena are so rare?

7 thoughts on “The Concert Talk Paradigm

  1. e.patton

    After 75 minutes of what sounds like fairly sophisticated, if clear and understandable, analysis, I doubt I would have been in the mood to listen to the piece either. That’s a long talk!

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    I know! Length aside, I also am inclined to prefer prefatory remarks that aim to intoduce, frame, or otherwise provide context for the piece rather than explain.

    Reply
  3. colin holter

    Wait, 75 minutes?! Dude should have had his head examined. Half an hour is about as hardcore as these kinds of talks should probably get.

    Reply
  4. micahelx

    first of all ::
    I’m jealous that you get to hear music in Berlin — I spent 15 months there in the Army and we could only listen to music in the West, but all the beautiful venues for muic and opera were in the East (Magnum Greyville) — AND second is they should have just played the piece first, then the talk etc — it seems to me that you felt what has been plaguing music for a long time: having an authoritative voice describing the elements of the, basically, emotional experience they are about to have by listening to music — it occurred to me it’s like getting introduced to a beautiful woman who has the hots for you but before you meet her, let me dissect a female corpse so you can study this person from the inside out — like that…..

    Reply
  5. Rosie

    Pre-Show Lectures
    How right you are! I know of one exception, however: Jonathan Dean from Seattle Opera gives an engaging pre-show lecture that whets the appetite.

    Reply
  6. bachtenor

    I give pre-concert lectures at the Carmel Bach Festival. My intention is always to get people excited so they want to hear the music. No recorded examples, no technical discussion. I take about 25 minutes and put the music into the context of history and culture. Why was it written? Who wrote it? Why should we care enough about it to program it?

    If listeners can frame the music in a context that makes sense to them, then they can “own” their relationship to the music in the listening experience. They know where it, and they, fit into the continuum of history and art.

    A 75 minute pre-concert lecture is doomed to failure. Yow.

    David Gordon
    david@bachfestival.org
    http://www.spiritsound.com
    http://www.bachfestival.org

    Reply
  7. horacioromero

    concert talk
    man thats a long concert talk, I never really understood the pre talks, a post talk seems like a better idea to me as well.

    Reply

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