Music or Celebrity...?


1st May 2013

The recent death of the conductor Sir Colin Davies, a venerable 85-year old one-time tyrant of the rostrum and the longest serving principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, deprives us of a formidable champion, not only of much British music – but also of music itself. He was a particularly sensitive interpreter of Mozart and Sibelius, and was devoted to Berlioz. His repertoire demonstrated a special affection for the lively contortions of the music of Stravinsky, and a championship of the often mysterious and eclectic operas and symphonies of Sir Michael Tippett.

But it was a pronouncement he made some years ago that now brings me to thinking again about an issue that has a significant, if conveniently neglected role in our European concert music debates. He said he would far rather people left the concert hall thinking about the music rather than the people playing or directing it.

We have suffered from celebrities for a long time. In the current climate of incessant, unrelenting, almost desperate entertaining by television and radio, a few moments of silence can set alarms ringing and raise blood pressures with fear and high anxiety. The absence of celebrity features can lower dramatically the sales of magazines and newspapers; the culture of ‘celebrity’ has become a religion.    Not that it wasn’t something of a significant matter in the past, too. Even in the days when Handel was fighting to draw audiences to his London opera seasons, employing a vastly over-paid prima donna or unique castrato mattered; but it was as nothing to today’s contagion.

It only takes a few decades for the stars to fade, and the exceptions are an emphasis to the rule. Connoisseurs remember the stars of the 19th century concert hall – dazzling singers like, Adelina Patti, Dame Nellie Melba, and Jenny Lind and celebrity performers like Liszt and Paganini. When conductors were invented around the 1840s, they too joined the ranks of celebrities to draw audiences, and for growing audiences it often mattered very little what music they were performing. Even now, an interview with a group of concert bound ladies on a Manchester bus proved their visits to the Hallé was to see the conductor and soloists, the programme being immaterial.

We continue to generate awards for young performers, series recitals, broadcasting routes and recording contracts for newly discovered talented singers and instrumentalists who may, perhaps, soon evaporate to languish among almost anonymous music clubs or join orchestras or choirs. Our major music colleges train young artists to the highest standards (conservatoire coaches have exacting standards) and annually turn out a small army of hopefuls into the international music market place. There is no shortage of philanthropic individuals and institutions that will offer support and exposure to the best or most persistent of this youthful throng.  Venues for young recitalists are kept alive by private funding, and affluent private houses still reflect a Victorian interest in presenting young musicians to their allies.

And yet, what of the music they play? Even the professors training these young people are unsure to what extent their students actually comprehend the 18th and 19th century repertoire they perform. They imitate the sounds, as if learning phrases in a language phonetically without understanding the meaning, running the risk of danger when those who do understand recognize their shortcomings. Long past are the days when composers were performers, and performers composed. A cadenza in the performance of a concerto would once be a spontaneous improvisation. Elaborate ornamentation around written music would be the result of a creativity that no longer exists with young performers – or if it does, is a highly exceptional talent that rarely receives any critical acclaim.

There is a huge distance extant now between performers and composers. Those who play have little or no concept of the composition process, and are therefore unable to comprehend its purpose. They learn a repertoire of music centuries old from recordings and imitation without insight, and regurgitate it mercilessly to audiences numbed by repetition and celebrity.

This way music will die, for the excitement of discovery that enriches the visual arts and literature, that demands new film and fresh approaches to theatre and television, seems altogether lost on the mass of musical mimics that graduate annually to seek an unnecessary place among the re-creators of what we have all heard too often already.


David C. 

I've only been attending classical concerts for a few years and am struck by how much the "rock star" attitudes of the pop world seem to be imitated increasingly.
The 13/14 classical season at London's Southbank Centre has a concert, admittedly not till April 14, by pianist Maurizio Pollini for which their season booklet and website states only "Beethoven sonatas to be announced", which is more of a clue to the content than his last concert at the same venue 2 years ago gave for months after ticket sales began.
Meanwhile one by Joseph Calleja with the RPO the same month says only "an evening of his favourite arias" .
Similarly, the Royal Albert Hall has been sending me e-mails of forthcoming concerts for months including an advert for a concert by violinist, Nicola Benedetti this September. As it happens I like her playing, but when I click through the link there is only a press release type of blurb telling me what awards she has won recently and what a fine live performer she is, but no clue what she will be playing or who, if anyone, will be accompanying her.
I'm all for loosening up the rather stiff formalities of classical concerts, but I don't think this is the way to go to improve things. 9 May 2013

otolio replied:

Marcus Weeks said once: "Often the soloist or conductor's name is in larger letters than the composer's on programmes and record sleeves". Quite true: the closest concert hall in my city can write the conductor's name with characters around 4 times higher (or to give you an idea, a letter size of approximately 12 versus 40).

I hardly ever go there for the performer – but then, wanting to listen to a variety of things, I don't go there to listen to the works by a concrete composer either. There are, however, performers whose names put me off, and I would rather give my pre-paid season ticket to someone than assisting to those events. (Isn't that too picky from me? Just asking)

On the other hand, as a beginner in composing, if my works are ever presented to the public, I hope they are presented by someone whose name doesn't scare away the public. I do prefer quality audiences to large ones; but then, if nobody listens to it, the chances of being listened to by a good listener are zero.

And I totally agree that some performers seem to ignore there was some century before ours, were people thought differently. Unfortunately, this is sometimes too clear when they play. With big letters or without being announced. 11 May 2013

robertjohnread replied:

Bravo to PS for raising this issue of the over celebritisation (yes, its a new word) of the concert hall. Nowadays I often have to shut my eyes so that I will not be distracted by the histrionics of the conductor or performer (and I do not exclude my favourite choral conductor Harry Christophers from this and I will draw a veil over Nicola Benedetti and her insanely fast Bach interpretations ). I long for the quiet platform presence of Alfred Brendel or Andras Schiff just letting the music, and their interpretations of it speak for themselves.

Technology has a leading role in all of this. When there were just sound recordings people listened to the music for itself and perhaps contented themselves with pinup photos of their favourite performers. With the invention of tv and video recording this all changed and visual performance now takes precedence over the notes. The same is true of musicals where stage setting often becomes pre-eminent, for example Starlight Express, Les Miserables or the Lion King. We probably have to go back to Rogers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter to find a more equal balance of music,words, acting and set design. Thank goodness the National Theatre has realised this a staged some wonderful revivals. 22 May 2013