> How do we win audiences by Arthur Butterworth

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by Arthur Butterworth


SINGING, or playing an instrument, provides self-satisfaction and fulfilment to those who perform, and there may not be any other essential purpose than this. The lone milkmaid singing contentedly to herself in some idealised, bygone rural setting; the solitary pianist playing a Mozart sonata in his or her drawing-room; the guitarist gently strumming away to himself in a student bed-sit - all such are musical performances, yet not specifically addressed to the rapt attention of others. Much other music, perhaps most, however, seems to be intended for those who are merely passive listeners.

‘Passive’, though? What exactly is meant by the word? The proper consideration of what this implies could be the basis of a whole philosophical debate or furnish good material for a doctoral thesis in the manner of Bertrand Russell. However, some brief if superficial thoughts about it might give rise to a casual discussion after a concert: ‘what did you think the audience made of X’s performance of the Y piano concerto?’ Do audiences really listen attentively? Come to that, do players listen either? I know one very distinguished professional player who, on being asked about the concert he has just been taking part in, generally replies: ‘I don’t know - I wasn’t listening’; or, about a celebrated guest conductor, ‘I don’t know - I wasn’t watching!’. All this might be blase, tongue-in-cheek put-down of an over-zealous and maybe naive listener; sadly, however, there is a grain of truth in such professional attitudes. This could be brought about by over-familiarity - the penalty of performing too often. Professionals, who are supposed to possess a high degree of technical excellence, can become indifferent to the job in hand (note the prosaic ‘job’). For all their comparative limitations in matters of technical or interpretative gifts, amateurs are rarely if ever so bored with the job as to be indifferent: if they found that their recreational activity had reached this stage they had best give up and find something else with which to occupy their spare time.

Enthusiasm is the thing that tends to mark out amateur effort and not infrequently makes it sound more satisfying than a professional performance done in a lack-lustre and routine way. For the most part, though, it has to be said that members of professional orchestras, and certainly all chamber musicians and soloists, do maintain an essential enthusiasm - and often nervousness - in performing music to the best of their ability.

To do all this properly requires some response from the listener. For the lone performer, playing or singing for personal satisfaction, this is perhaps not necessary (the presence of a listener, if there be one, is incidental); but for a public statement in music the communication with others who merely listen, and their consequent response, is something the performer really does need. While it may not be something on which the performer’s musical survival depends, a response in some form or other is for everyone concerned an essential ingredient if the total experience is to achieve its full potential.

Years ago I recall being associated with a BBC orchestra whose general attitude was one of a peculiarly inverted emotional reaction to a performance: A common remark at the start of the second half of a public concert whose first half had been broadcast was: ‘Ah, we can relax now - this part is not being broadcast!’. The implication was that the ‘on air’ relay of the concert was being heard by tens of thousands - and probably by the Head of Music who might be listening at home with a very critical ear - whereas the small ‘live’ audience in the local town hall did not matter so much.

To non-radio orchestras, however, all public concerts are, or should be, an occasion. Every performer knows of the acute sense of disappointment felt when there are many empty seats in the auditorium: nothing more inspires a highly-charged performance than the sight of a full house nor proves more rewarding than its warm, enthusiastic applause at the end. This reception can reasonably be expected to be forthcoming if several important elements are present a) the music is already familiar; b) the performance itself is convincing; c) the soloist is competent (not necessarily ‘celebrated’; the hype of concert-agents is not an absolute guarantee that the performance will always be distinguished); and d) the conductor does not, by over-zealous self-promotion of an exaggerated balletic kind, get between the music and its appreciation.

Other factors, however - unfamiliar music, unknown soloists or conductors - present imponderables in the winning-over of audiences; and it is these which exercise such a baleful influence on promoters of professional concerts in their choice of what is performed and by whom.

Amateur organisations can generally face less anxiety over the strictly economic aspects of concert-giving; but they still need to persuade audiences that what they have paid to listen to is going to materialise into a worthwhile, even memorable, experience. Here, programme notes can be of considerable assistance, but there is an art in writing persuasive notes that effectively help to generate the listeners’ sympathetic response to a new experience: no matter whether that experience be of ‘new’ music or of music which while all-too-familiar to some is new to others (there must always be some who have never heard Messiah before).

Contrary to what most concert-promoters (and even more so, concert-agents) think is important in the brochures which they put out, I believe that the concert-going public is not really all that impressed by hype about conductors and soloists having been on this or that foreign tour - having studied under internationally renowned professors S and T- having recorded on label U - having performed with orchestras V, W and X - and having won the prestigious Y and Z prizes. Such PR-speak is usually as meaningless as the messages of glossy brochures advertising new models of cars or washing-machines. Personal recommendation is more persuasive, but then we tend to suspend our critical faculties when we have heard somebody on radio - even more so, seen and heard that person on television.

At one time, particularly in the more sober but shrewdly knowledgeable German music circles, programmes did not contain a shred of all this ‘razzmatazz’ - arty, posed action-photographs of impassioned ’cellists; of conductors apparently deep in profound thought (with eyes tightly-closed) in the manner of Bernstein navigating some vast Mahler score. On the contrary, their printed programmes gave the barest essentials, set in the most restrained type-sizes.

I recall attending a concert in Germany shortly after the end of the war. ‘Solist Emil Telmanyi (violine). Dirigent - Franz Konwitschny’ - and that was that: the rest of the programme merely listed the works to be played, accompanied by a brief, learned dissertation of the kind so familiar in the introductions to the miniature scores published by Eulenberg. All this was printed on paper of modest dimensions, devoid of advertising or other extraneous information. The thing that mattered was what was performed rather than who performed it.(* see footnote)

Examples of programmes that were not hyped-up.



Of course we are told nowadays that personalities are what attract audiences. In some ways, perhaps this has always been so - think of the immense prestige of mid-19th century opera-singers, comparable to the mindless adulation of today’s pop-singers. Instrumentalists, by comparison, did not attract this effusive, hysterical reaction (Paganini, Chopin and Liszt being the obvious exceptions); but in recent years they too have been ‘marketed’ by agents and record companies to arouse the same sort of following. Conductors, likewise, have become the pampered, much photographed prima donnas of the rostrum, their ‘profiles’ cluttering the arts columns of the ‘quality’ papers as well as of countless glossy magazines.

This disease has spread to concert programmes. Take, for example, the distinguished (or perhaps merely worthy) career of an orchestra’s principal conductor. In the first concert of the season, it is perhaps fair enough to remind the audience of the heroic exploits of their maestro: but do the ‘regulars’ who form the backbone of any orchestra’s following need, or even want, to be given this at concert after concert? Why should not the second and subsequent concerts of the season feature portraits of members of the orchestra - perhaps timpanist, second flute, third horn and fourth ’cellist in one programme; principal trumpet, principal viola, tuba and a long-serving rank-and-file second violinist in the next - and so on? (In the mid-1950s the Scottish National Orchestra’s monthly magazine carried articles on all the players in turn; and in one season the individual photographs of all the members were included in the prospectus).

Plain and simple:



So what do audiences think of all this? It is a tantalising question, with no obvious answers. Casual conversation during the interval or after the concert may not be so reliable: people tend to say one thing - perhaps because it is expedient to do so when everyone else around is conscious of the excitement of the moment, but yet secretly think the opposite. Perhaps we are never likely to know, for in reality every person retains in his or her own mind, as in all things in life, a unique perception of what has been experienced, a perception which, even if he wanted to communicate it to the rest of us, would in essence be vague at the best. This is because, unlike verbal or written language, music is fundamentally so abstract and almost totally unspecific in any sense of real meaning. But this is to over-simplify the situation to the point of being almost wholly misleading, for inevitably there must be limitless exceptions to such a sweeping generalisation. Pondering how audiences as a group on the one hand, and as individuals on the other, respond to musical performance is something we can never really know for certain. The conventional applause may be satisfying up to a point; but how much this is genuine emotional or intellectual involvement and reaction? Is some of it only a polite, patronising acknowledgement? Could there be a means of finding out the answer to such questions?

Arthur Butterworth


* Todays absurd personality cult is nowhere more evident than in the relentless promotion of ‘The Three Tenors’, who command enormously inflated fees for their shameless acts of musical vandalism such as turning Nessun Dorma into a trio.

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