Another Perspective On Conductors Talking From The Podium

Has talking before each piece taken the mojo out of a performance? I know from personal experience that in the past few seasons I’ve found myself wishing that the conductor would wrap it up and get to the music. On other occasions, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to what a conductor has to say, regardless of how long he or she takes. However, The Partial Observer published an article by Holly Mulcahy that examines the issue from an intriguing perspective, one which asks whether presenting an interpretation during a pre-performance talk can rob a listener of their own perceptive. It left me wondering if efforts to reach out to listeners can actually turn some away.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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2 thoughts on “Another Perspective On Conductors Talking From The Podium”

  1. I personally think that, more often than not, conductors speaking from the stage is a good thing. Yes, Mulcahy presents one anecdote where it was a negative for the audience as well as reminds us that it can be annoying for the musicians, but I think those complaints are far outweighed by greater engagement with the audience.

    Research has shown that a concert-goer enjoys a performance more if they already have positive expectations. Mulcahy lists several ways this can happen: listen to a recording beforehand or read the program notes. However, I suspect that neither of these occur very often for a novice patron. That means that any introduction from the conductor is the last opportunity to prepare the audience for the music. Like I said, research would indicate that this is crucial to put the odds in our favor.

    As for the musicians, I think the reality we face today is that this trend is necessary. Frankly, the orchestra hall of yesterday is intimidating to novices, and changes are necessary to fight this reputation, even if they are distracting. I would argue that, not only will this be financially beneficial, the artistic quality will survive as well. Just watch this year’s Super Bowl again to see the world-class performances that can take place within a cacophany of distractions.

    Of course there are exceptions, but remarks from the conductor/musicians/soloits are valuable. Some artists aren’t good speakers, and certain performances have much greater impact when you get right into the music. However, for the sake of ensuring that everyone in the audience is ready to enjoy the show, we need to always consider talking to them.

    Thanks for the comment Darren. I think this is going to be a growing issue at organizations that use conductors who talk from the stage more often than not. In particular, my concern is if each respective organization will have the resources to adequately measure the impact on those attending.

    Without adequate study, it isn’t even possible to refine/enhance the initiative and, to me, that seems like the biggest loss. Worst case scenario is that the business will move forward with the idea that something may be a good idea but not conduct any real quantifiable research to support or refute that belief. and isn’t that what got us into same of the problems we’re dealing with already? ~ Drew McManus

  2. The problem with most commentary by conductors is generally that they tell you what you can read in th program notes. They don’t illuminate the sometimes simple underlying ideas of the composition, or the composer’s relation to his time and how it is reflected in the music, as well as its relevance to today.

    Recently, a guest conductor, Glenn Cooper, in Jacksonville gave an extremely brief, but memorable description of the key signatures for each of the Mozart pieces being played that evening and their meaning to audiences for which they were performed. Musicians are generally aware of these musical metaphors for love, grief, etc., but the general public isn’t. His description helped people to listen more closely to the content of Mozart’s music.

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