Setting the scene: the art of the pre-concert talk

8:19, 17th August 2018

On 13 October 1927 (which was, by the way, the day before Roger Moore was born, and three days after the staged version of DuBose Hayward’s novel Porgy opened on Broadway), A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six first appeared in print. Before we are told about King John’s Christmas, The Knight Whose Armour Didn’t Squeak, and the escape of Alexander Beetle, Milne provides the volume with a brief introduction. ‘When you are reciting poetry,’ he tells us, ‘which is a thing we never do, you find sometimes, just as you are beginning, that Uncle John is still telling Aunt Rose that if he can’t find his spectacles he won’t be able to hear properly, and does she know where they are; and by the time everybody has stopped looking for them, you are at the last verse, and in another minute they will be saying, “Thank you, thank you,” without really knowing what it was all about. So, next time, you are more careful; and, just before you begin you say, “Er-h’r’m!” very loudly, which means, “Now then, here we are”; and everybody stops talking and looks at you; which is what you want.’

Pre-concert talks, in my experience, fulfil exactly this purpose of providing the ‘Er-h’r’m!’ before the concert begins. Audience members come to a venue, keen to hear the music but freshly arrived from nightmare commutes, long days at work, hastily consumed dinners, and all the various distractions of the day. One of my jobs, therefore, is to prepare them for what lies ahead, and to settle them into a mindset to help them listen more intently (an active process, after all) to the concert. I am the warm-up act – the one who says ‘Now then, here we are.’

I am also a sort of treasure hunter, and this is one of the things that keeps me endlessly fascinated by my work. You’ll notice I couldn’t even help myself in the first sentence of this article: not content to tell you one thing that occurred in October 1927, I came out with three. Have you ever associated Winnie-the-Pooh with James Bond and DuBose Hayward before? What about Brahms’s First Violin Sonata, the Blackpool illuminations and the birth of Leon Trotsky? (All 1879, if you’re wondering.) It is the hunt for these gems of information, the kind of contemporary detail that brings a given historical period to life, that I so enjoy. These are the things which set the scene.

The curtain, then, has risen and the stage is ready before us. Now to the music. Who wrote it? And how does it work? The more first-hand reports from composers, their friends and their critics, the better: it is remarkably easy to forget that these things were created by people, as if their historical distance from today (and yes, this applies to 20th-century composers as well) somehow dehumanises them. Beethoven received a horse as a thank-you for writing his cello variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’. Schubert managed to throw ink all over a manuscript of Die Forelle. Saint-Saëns refused to allow The Carnival of the Animals to be performed in public during his lifetime lest it ruin his reputation as a serious composer. One of the most complete reviews of the premiere of Bartók’s First String Quartet concluded that after the event, ‘we had only one wish, one irresistible desire: give us some aspirin!’ It is amazing how quickly such small details bring creators and their colleagues to life.

Getting into the nitty-gritty of music analysis is slightly trickier. Some of the most successful – and indeed, the most wonderfully enjoyable – pre-concert talks I’ve ever given have been in situations where I’ve been joined by musicians on the stage. The generosity of the Doric and Heath Quartets at successive years of the Ryedale Festival allowed us to take apart thematic development in late Beethoven and Haydn, amongst others, in a way that the audience could actually hear. (Recordings are possible of course, but trickier to use: you can’t ask the oboist to play up to make a melody more audible.) On some occasions I have been known to leap to the piano, if one is to hand – a slightly intimidating prospect if you know that the actual pianist, the one who can play these things properly, is waiting in the wings and can probably hear! But after all, I’m a person, not a programme note, and the fact that this is all happening ‘out loud’ gives me an opportunity to provide audible insights into the music to come.

The vast majority of my concert talks take place in advance of the performance and are solo presentations. It’s always a special pleasure to be joined by others. Before a concert, this is most usually a composer: to have the opportunity to ask Sally Beamish or Sir James MacMillan about their works before we hear them is a privilege, and requires a slightly different kind of ‘homework’ from a straightforward talk. (Which might, by the way, include deciphering a large-scale work from the score alone, if no recording is available. This gives you a whole new perspective on the level of score-reading and musical understanding that professionals simply had as standard prior to the late nineteenth century.)

Recently, I also took part in a post-concert talk, a relatively rare occasion, interviewing Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside at Wigmore Hall after their superlative performance of Schwanengesang. In these thrilling opportunities to speak with the creators and interpreters of what we are about to hear – or what we have just heard – my primary concern is to attempt to divine what you would like to know. Yes, you, in the audience. You who have battled through work, bolted your dinner, faced the long commute, because you are keen to hear and learn and engage with a concert. That, in the end, is my most important job: to talk to you about the thing we have in common. Our absolute love of music.

Katy Hamilton is a freelance researcher, writer and presenter on music.

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