Musicians should talk to their audiences – but the music must always come first

Bradley CreswickThu 17th October 2013

Members of the Royal Northern Sinfonia often provide anecdotes and explanations during concerts

Bradley Creswick, leader of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, talks about chatting to audiences on the eve of their concert at London’s newest concert hall, Milton Court.

The experience of music is a real mystery. Whether performing a piece of music, or listening to one, we have all asked ourselves the question: ‘Why am I moved by this?’ Or indeed, ‘Why am I not moved!’ Sharing music in live performance is one of the greatest pleasures in life as all the musicians open up to express the music’s character and soul, from the sublime to the ridiculous. So do performers need to say anything else?

Of course, programme notes serve this purpose, giving insights into a composer’s world, and the structure and theme of the composition. Who isn’t the richer when they spot the ‘Clara’ theme in Brahms or the massive palindrome in Berg’s Chamber Concerto? 

The long-established etiquette for classical concerts creates an expectancy of something exciting about to happen. I remember the magic of my first concerts as a schoolboy, hearing the sound of the orchestra tuning, the leader coming on followed closely by the conductor, and those first few notes, which we had all been waiting for.

As a young violinist fresh from the Royal College of Music, one of my first jobs was as an extra with the Philharmonia. Being very new, I asked the orchestral manager how long the interval was, before the second half of the concert. ‘Twenty minutes’, came the reply, so I popped outside for some fresh air. Of course, 10 minutes elapsed, but somehow it passed me by. Returning to backstage, I found it all very quiet. Yikes, they were on stage! So I ran on to the platform and taking my seat at the back of the orchestra, I received a loud round of applause from the audience who were obviously amused – even more so when the leader Carl Pini made an entrance, stopped, and theatrically shook my hand to my obvious embarrassment!

It was this personal touch that changed the atmosphere in the concert hall – it instantly became warm. This interaction between the stage and audience was made all the more special because we spontaneously broke the formal conventions of a live concert. Thankfully the Philharmonia forgave me and as time went by, they even promoted me to leader.  

In our concerts with the Royal Northern Sinfonia at Sage Gateshead, we often present smaller chamber concerts with quartets, trios and duos. This gives individual players a chance to choose the programme and explain the music in an intimate setting. The formality of classical concerts actually enhances the occasion, because when we do speak, it is that much more special. We include anecdotes from our daily lives and talk about how we discovered this wonderful piece of music. The main thing is to demonstrate the individual’s approach to the music and their own idiosyncratic way of understanding the piece.  

We have just started our last season with Thomas Zehetmair as music director.  Even after 12 years, everything still feels fresh because Thomas has such an original voice and he’s truly inspirational. Thankfully he will remain with us as conductor laureate. The other evening, we were giving a concert of Colin Matthews’ Oboe Quartet No 1. When the work was performed previously, it was with a conductor and they wanted to explain to the audience a change of format. This time, without a conductor and because of the nature of the piece, each player in the group would be conducting it at different stages through the piece. We didn’t want the audience to be too alarmed by this unusual set-up, and to make light of it, we asked the audience to write in, voting for who they thought would make the best next music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia! 

We’re lucky to have so many witty, charming, zany people in the Royal Northern Sinfonia with their own particular stories, which never fail to enlighten and entertain. Over the years, our audience have got to know some unusual facts about us behind the scenes, as well as gaining insights into the composer’s world. This is particularly true with pieces of contemporary music, which can seem daunting at first, but can come to life with just a few words of explanation. However it has to be said that there is a time when the music should be left to speak for itself, otherwise we can ruin an atmosphere. After all, people have come to hear the music, not a lecture!

Thanks to our vast education programme, which reaches out to so many people in Gateshead, Newcastle and the North East, more people at every age are actively getting involved in music, learning an instrument or joining a choir. This knowledge makes them curious about what we do in the orchestra and what we perform.

Because we are a small ensemble, it is easy for audiences to recognise the 30 or so individual faces when we are on stage and as a result people recognise us all over town. Norman Foster designed Sage Gateshead with no backstage bar, so after concerts it is always a great pleasure to go to the bar in the public space and chat to the audience.

Thomas Zehetmair conducts Royal Northern Sinfonia in an all-Mozart programme including the Sinfonia Concertante, the D major Divertimento (Salzburg Symphony No 1) and Symphony No 39 at Milton Court Concert Hall on Friday October 18. They return to Milton Court on June 13, 2014 for a programme which includes Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, the UK premiere of John Casken’s The Subtle Knot written for Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius, and Beethoven’s Symphony No 5.

Bradley Creswick's picture

Bradley Creswick

Violinist Bradley Creswick has a long association with Royal Northern Sinfonia going back to 1984 when he was first appointed leader. In 1987 he moved to London to lead the Philharmonia, still maintaining his relationship with the Sinfonia, making guest appearances. The London years continued as leader of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House before taking the opportunity, in 1994, to return to the Sinfonia and the North East for a second time. He has recorded for EMI and Naxos.

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