A rap from the podium

Gavin Dixon – J...Thu 29th March 2012

Few conductors speak directly to their audiences, but when they do is it informative and engaging or downright annoying?

The job of a conductor is to communicate with an audience. That communication usually takes place through the music, but what happens when a conductor chooses to turn round and speak directly to the listeners?

The answer seems to be that not all listeners like it. The conductor Kenneth Woods is always generous with his written and verbal commentaries. He's an inveterate blogger, and only a few weeks ago wrote a guest blog for this site discussing his recent work on the symphonies of Schumann and Hans Gál. Woods was in London shortly afterwards to give a concert with the Orchestra of the Swan. One reviewer, Rick Jones, gave the event a positive write-up apart from – you guessed it – Woods's spoken introduction at the beginning.

Jones writes: 'He disappoints by picking up a microphone at the start of the concert and adding nothing to our enjoyment. Say something perhaps at the end when we have started to enthuse, but not the start. Who goes to a concert to listen to a conductor waffling?'

The conductor himself reacted in a typically communicative spirit. He quoted the passage on his own blog, saying that Jones 'didn't like my rap from the podium' before going on to defend his short spoken introductions and inviting comments from his readers.

One the whole, the reactions have been positive, so it is unlikely that the episode is going to shut Ken up any time soon. But the fact remains that he is one of only a few orchestral conductors working in this country who does talk to his audience. So are we missing out? Could other conductors be providing us with musical insights we might otherwise miss?

From the comments on Ken's blog, the consensus seems to be that people go to concerts to be entertained rather than educated. That doesn't preclude some talking from the podium, but it does mean there is an imperative to be entertaining – and brief.

The most high-profile 'talking conductor' in the UK today is John Eliot Gardiner. It is rare for him to get to the end of the concert without having shared some of his thoughts about the repertoire. I remember a concert he gave with the English Baroque Soloists at Cadogan Hall in 2009 of music by Johann Christoph Bach, a cousin of Johann Sebastian. So little of Johann Christoph's music survives that most of it was fitted into this programme, and with a short outline of the composer's life from Gardiner, we left the concert with the feeling that we now knew about as much as we needed to in order to judge the composer's work. However, Gardiner's first comment of the evening was the most memorable as, turning round to see the hall less than half full, he lamented that it was due to that little word 'Christoph'. If he had substituted it with 'Sebastian' the hall would surely be bursting at the seams.

Woods makes the point that his little talks 'humanise the relationship between performer and audience members', something that Gardiner also achieves with his introductions. But it is important to stay on topic. Last year, Gardiner gave another excellent concert in London, which concluded with Beethoven's Seventh. But before raising the baton, he turned and began addressing the audience. This time I found that the result was less successful; he began by saying that the slow movement of the work had recently been used in the film The King's Speech, before going on to contemplate the role of music in cinema. Then we got a discussion about the recent Gewandhaus Beethoven performances at the Barbican and finally some thoughts about the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery, none of which added much to my enjoyment of the performance that followed.

Marin Alsop is another great podium talker. Many of her performances in the UK, with the Bournemouth Symphony and London Philharmonic Orchestras, have introduced new works by American composers. A short introduction is always helpful when presented with something new, and Alsop often illustrates her talks with themes and ideas from the music played by individual players in the orchestra.

So what's the harm? One reply to Woods's blog talks about the threat posed to the 'sacred ritual' of classical performance, and Woods concedes that some music ought to be left to speak for itself. So perhaps the podium talk is the right thing for some events, new music performances and premieres say, but not for others.

It is no coincidence that both Woods and Alsop are American. The tradition of podium introductions Stateside goes back to one very communicative conductor, Leonard Bernstein (with whom Alsop studied). Bernstein was never reticent about the educational element of his work, and perfected a way of talking to his audiences that was informative, never patronising, and always well received. His one bad habit though was apologising in advance. Presenting music of the European avant-garde, he would tell his listeners that he didn't like or understand it but felt obliged to programme it. And then there was the famous incident when, in 1962, he conducted a performance of Brahms's First Piano Concerto with Glenn Gould. Major interpretative disagreements between the two men ought, by rights, to have led to cancellation. Instead, Bernstein went along with Gould's demands, but made an announcement at the start of the performance, in which he effectively disowned the interpretation – not the best way to get the audience on your side.

Bernstein's apologies show how easy it is to give too much information, and to risk alienating listeners before they've even heard a note. But if it's done right, the podium introduction can enrich the concert experience, offering information on the music and increasing the sense of communication between the stage and the stalls. Kenneth Woods seems to have got the balance right. His advice to aspiring podium talkers: be brief, warm, avoid jargon, and most importantly of all, don't take yourself too seriously.

Gavin Dixon – J...

Gavin Dixon is a journalist who specialises in classical music, tweeting as @saquabote and reviewing concerts and CDs for a number of publications and websites. Gavin is a member of the editorial team behind the Alfred Schnittke Collected Works Edition (2010-13).

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