Commentating on Music

Andrew Mellor
Friday, May 4, 2018

Years ago I thought the idea of verbal commentary on a performance made for a funny joke. Now, I see its huge potential

Eight years ago I spent twenty minutes of my lunch hour writing a tongue-in-cheek fake news item for the satirical website NewsBiscuit. The article heralded BBC Radio 3’s decision to introduce sports-style commentary for its live concert broadcasts – the sort that might overlay the transmission of a football match.

Of course, it wasn’t true. It was a blunt joke, capitalising on an extended metaphor (where words like ‘players’ and ‘performance’ are interchangeable) and poking gentle fun at a trend apparently taking root at our major media institutions. At the time, many of those institutions, including the BBC, insisted every technical or cultural reference be explained or linguistically simplified, lest some fragment of the discourse be left for the viewer or reader to investigate.

But there was one other reason for writing that article. It was a faint belief that the atmosphere and insight of sports commentary might work rather well in the classical music arena, where we can no longer take concrete knowledge for granted (arguably an advantage in some scenarios) and where artists are often engaged in superhuman feats day-in-day-out. Could such commentary draw people in to this rarefied world?

In February, many of us were hooked on coverage of the Winter Olympics from South Korea. This is a tournament that contains a large number of strange and unfamiliar sports. Like much of the music we write about here on Gramophone, they represent disorientating minefields for the uninitiated. So why do so many of us enjoy watching them? Because, by and large, we are open-minded enough to find the process of learning-by-experiencing both absorbing and rewarding. And because the journalistic coverage of such events has never been better – in terms of expertise or the communication thereof.

Good commentary helps us see what we should be looking and listening for. It aids our understanding of a discipline, and invites us to rejoice when we’ve witnessed something extraordinary. None of the editors at BBC Sport seemed to mind that we weren’t given a definition of ‘Frontside Rodeo’ every two minutes during coverage of the slopestyle snowboarding heats at the Winter Olympics. They trusted us to get the hang of such terms, if deployed with accuracy and clarity, over time.

Good commentary thrives on that lightness of touch. But it is also deeply emotional. That explains why listening to Proms concerts via the radio can sometimes be even more involving than witnessing the performances live at the Royal Albert Hall. The best Radio 3 commentators are those with a gift for capturing the atmosphere of the moment, the mood of the occasion. They know how much of themselves to give, and how much is too much. Some deploy a different tone of voice when introducing a live Choral Evensong from that they would use for teeing-up a festival performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. It’s the difference, you might say, between the ‘sound’ of snooker and football.

Last week I had the opportunity to explore some of these ideas while commentating on a conducting competition in Copenhagen for a live-stream, hosted partially by Gramophone. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation, which masterminded the event, invited me in to discuss how the coverage might work. Immediately, I saw the parallels with both the Winter Olympics coverage and with my 2010 attempt to make a joke about sports commentary in a musical setting.

The vital difference here was the competitive element. The beauty of such competitions is that they reveal that most complex and elusive aspect of so much ‘classical’ music – that interpretation is everything, and everyone’s interpretation is different – and they do so in an environment many of us can relate to from sports or talent shows. Music competitions can fast-track an audience’s familiarity with a particular piece of music and offer everyone the chance to decide whose version of it they believe worked best.

Andrew Mellor's live commentary for the 2018 Malko Competition

It’s funny how, in these situations, everyone has an opinion – even those who protest that they ‘know nothing about classical music.’ The competition process brings a vital extra dimension, one the commentator can harness to draw viewers and listeners in further. Never are people more receptive to analysis and expertise than when they have a vested interest – a favoured contestant or team. The profusion of complex analysis that surrounds football and cricket matches proves as much.

Conducting is such a personal, expressive art – and it has such an all-embracing effect on the music in question – that it is both relatively easy and highly engrossing to discuss, especially when contestants at a competition bring such different approaches to it. But there is a chance to reach deeper than that. In preparation for the Malko Competition, I listened to as many recordings of the prescribed works as possible and also read as many reviews of said works as I could lay my hands on (many, via the Gramophone archive, stretched back decades).

Much like a pundit pitting the poor defensive track record of West Ham against the unstoppable firepower of Manchester City, I tried to ascertain what dangers the prescribed works would pose for each contestant, and tapped the expertise of other journalists in so doing. What’s the worst thing that can happen in the slow movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Arguably, it’s that the audience will hear the noise of the music’s moving parts more than they will Beethoven’s steady and apparently endless developmental cycle. How can the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin be scuppered, even if the pacing is perfect? By the slightest sweetening or dulling of the string tone, perhaps.

Yes, there are millions of exceptions and complications. But as each stage of the competition saw more contestants ejected, there was an opportunity to consider what strengths and weaknesses the remaining conductors had shown us, and how those strengths and weaknesses might fare in the repertoire still to come. I’d like to think we were revealing the fundamentals of the art of conducting, even if some our explanations were dressed in competitive intrigue.

I had all these observations – and many more – ready to call upon as each contestant came onto the stage. But of course, the real gift for the commentator is the journey each contestant or athlete takes you on. There are few more terrifying prospects than walking onto a stage in front of a reputable orchestra and having 15 minutes with which to rehearse it in Mozart or Beethoven. It is even worse if your every word is being broadcast inside and outside the auditorium.

That is what each contestant faced in the first round of the Malko Competition. All showed tremendous courage. Some crashed and burned. Others triumphed in the most unlikely ways: one overcame crippling nerves to get to the final; another let himself be typecast before delivering something utterly different that won him the competition.

These stories brought increasing atmosphere to the competition as it progressed, and were a gift for the media team covering it. There was tension, there were backstories, there was a lot at stake (not least given this particular competition’s huge prize package) and as such, it was a joy to harness the expectations and desires of the audience and to empathise with the contestants. The media team were as gripped as anyone, and to some extent, could allow ourselves to show as much with our voices, bodies or written words. Some of the most exciting and beautiful music ever composed came in useful, too.

But in these confusing times for music criticism, there were also lessons we could learn from our colleagues in the world of sport. Like Gramophone’s reviews, we had to offer acute analysis when things had gone wrong as well as right. Despite the protestations of social media, it is a critic’s job to draw on his or her experience in an attempt to put the artist’s achievements in context. As soon as a determination to do that is blunted, any sort of positive appraisal is debased.

As the old cliché goes, all 24 conductors at the Malko Competition had triumphed already simply by being there (they were 24 from a field of 566). But their bravery in stepping onto the stage had to be respected and counterbalanced with honest and sometimes harsh analysis. If we believed a contestant talked too much, had an unclear beat or had misunderstood a particular work, we would suggest so. Our colleagues in the world of sports journalism can’t gloss over mistakes or misjudgements; to do so would be laughably dishonest and do a disservice to the athletic community. Besides, basic human empathy will usually lead a commentator to will talented individuals on and urge them in fruitful directions.

But to deploy another whopping cliché, the real victor has to be music. You only commentate on anything in order to lubricate a wider understanding of is principles and to communicate something of the communal experience it delivers – in a competition setting or otherwise. That is as relevant to the miracle of orchestral performance, and those brave enough to attempt to marshal it, as it is to an Olympic Final.

And like an Olympic Final, a breathtaking performance often conceals years of preparation and diligence underneath its surface tension and magic. When it goes right, it can bring a concert hall or a stadium to its feet. Those are the moments we live for, whether commentating or simply watching. But the process of trying to explain why it went right can be just as exciting and even a little educating too. In an age of empty flattery, it is an area our industry could capitalise on to magnificent effect.

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