Saturday, March 24, 2012

Programs and Program Notes

For the last few years I have been dragooned into writing program notes for a couple of different concert series. Apart from having sometimes to throw them together in too little time, I quite enjoy doing this. As a result, I become somewhat familiar with music that I might not have. But also as a result, I have become a bit sensitized to the value a good program and notes can add to the concert experience.

For example, I just attended two concerts in a Baroque music festival and they could have benefited immensely from a bit of attention to the program. The first concert was for solo harpsichord in a small, historic chapel. So far, so excellent. But then things started to go downhill. The artistic director of the festival gave what seemed to be an interminable introduction, that grew even longer when he introduced another gentleman who gave another dreary, droning introduction full of odd claims and misapprehensions. Finally the soloist appeared and began to play. Lovely sound! But I realized that while I was quite sure I knew the music, I didn't actually know for sure what it was. After a while, she paused and allowed us to clap. Someone must have said something because she asked if we had the program and rolled her eyes when we said no. The president of the festival rushed around and programs were finally handed out, at which point we learned that we had just heard three pieces by Rameau. This was followed by three other composers. The program listed the name of each composer and the name of each movement and even the dates of the composers' lives. So, a bit of a wobble,  but not bad.

Then I attended another concert in the same series and, well, the wobble turned into a real failure. The concert was a fairly grand one of music, according to the newspaper, by Bach and Vivaldi for choir and orchestra. As we entered we were handed two things: the little booklet for the whole festival and a separate sheet of paper with the names of the musicians, singers and conductor. Here is a scan of the program for the concert. This was the entire program, no other information was cleverly tucked away somewhere else.

This is just about exactly the original size. Now imagine the context: a dimly lit room (at least in the audience), at the front the director droning away as before, but this time through a public address system so inadequate that I wasn't even sure which language he was droning away in, and me squinting, trying to make out the title of the first Bach cantata. One of the announcements was that the director listed in the program was not available so the concert would be conducted by (inaudible), presumably the fellow who was listed on that stray piece of paper we were handed. The droned introduction, by the way, was replete with appeals for support, for patronage and contained some commercials for the festival. All very important stuff, of course, but it would have made a better impact had it been, um, audible. There was no mention of the music we were about to hear. Then the concert started. A bit shaky at the beginning, but it soon settled down and sounded very good. But I was squirming a bit because the music didn't sound quite like what I expected it to. Schutz is not a composer I am very familiar with. The next piece didn't sound quite like I expected either. Then the director got up and informed us that the first piece, by Schutz, had been dropped from the program so we had actually started with the first cantata by Bach, followed by the piece by Biber and now were about to hear the second Bach cantata. Well, jolly good! As I've been just reading the Oxford History on these folks a couple of weeks ago, I really should have been able to figure that out on my own! But what about everyone else?

We are hearing unfamiliar music, sung in an unfamiliar language (few German speakers here and no Latin speakers!), designed for use in religious services that we are also unfamiliar with (no Lutherans here, either). This is the kind of situation where program notes, or at least an informed (but brief) introduction to the music is absolutely crucial. I would also argue for the compete text plus translation. I know that many artists hate the idea of the audience having the text because of the rustling paper issue, but in a case like this, I think you have to risk it. Notice how terribly minimal that program is! Apart from being wrong, listing a work not played, it fails to list the movements of the two Bach cantatas and the Vivaldi. It should have looked like this for the first Bach cantata:

  1. Sinfonia
  2. [chorus] Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich
  3. [soprano aria] Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt
  4. [chorus] Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit
  5. [alto/tenor/bass trio] Zedern müssen von den Winden
  6. [chorus] Meine Augen sehen stets zu dem Herrn
  7. [chorus (ciaccona)] Meine Tage in dem Leide

The text goes like this: Chorus: "For you, Lord, is my longing" (better would be, "My longing, Lord, is for you"). Soprano aria: "But I am, and remain, content". Chorus: "Lead me in your truth and teach me". Aria (terzetto): "Cedars must before the wind, often feel much hardship". And so on. I was able to find this out in, oh, approximately 3 minutes research on the Web. This would not have been difficult. But it is very important because Bach took great care in the texts he set. The meanings were very important to him and should be to us. Instead, the organizers of the concert preferred to allow hundreds of people to sit in confusion and ignorance in the concert hall while some pretty good performances were unfolding. This is not the easiest music to absorb with absolutely no idea of what they are singing about or of the context in general. Good grief, and we wonder sometimes why it is hard for people to appreciate classical music.

We have to know our music and be able to introduce it to people who may not know it. Sometimes I think musical knowledge and understanding is pretty thin, even among people who are supposedly professional classical musicians. Now let's hear that cantata:

Bach is a great madrigalist (word-painter) in his cantatas. Two striking examples in this one are the chromatic sighs on the words "zuschanden werden" (to be put to shame) in the opening chorus and the accompaniment in the terzetto that seems to capture cedars tossing in the wind. That passage comes just after the 9 minute mark in the clip. Wonderful stuff in the Bach cantatas. Which anyone can appreciate. If they have just a tiny bit of information about this kind of music. And if they have THE TEXT!!!

It is hard not to come away from a concert like this without feeling that someone here has shown, if not actual contempt for the music, than certainly a rather thorough disinterest in the music. It's not the musicians, who did a fine job.

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