When I took my seat at a recent performance of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia my friend seated next to me immediately said “you better read the program if you want to understand what’s going on.” At intermission I ran into another friend whose fist words were “I downloaded all the information about the 19th century Russian socialists from the website before coming – did you?” This was starting to feel an awful like the frantic comments exchanged between students before a lecture or an exam – not a pleasant feeling.
As it happened I hadn’t done any preparation, and did not heed my friend’s advice before the curtain went up. And was I glad. As the house lights dimmed I experienced 90 seconds of what felt like pure theater — the house went completely dark, wisps of horizontal, midnight blues strands gradually appeared across the space, sea sounds emerged from all around, and a resolute Alexander Herzen (the principle figure in the play) gradually came into focus suspended halfway between the proscenium and the thrust stage, and then faded, and though the scrim the Russian people came into view.
In these 90 seconds, I was completely transported, leaving Broadway, my friend, my world, my time, and began a journey, approaching a shore and a distant, but perhaps not too distant world. Theater’s elements worked their magic — lighting, sound, stage direction, acting (even without a word yet spoken) did their job of telling me all I needed to know be ready for the performance that was to come. I thought to my self “God, I love going to plays.”
So when I take a friend to a concert I almost never suggest reading the program notes. If I suggest anything at all it’s simply to notice what you see and hear. The seeing part is very important – there’s a lot going on and it’s all part of the experience. I had a theory teacher at the Manhattan School of Music who, when seeking our analysis of some thorny work whose only organizing principle seemed to be the elimination of any organizing principle, would simply ask, “Tell me what you hear, what does it sound like?” Our answers would lead to more probing questions, and eventually we would unlock the work’s secrets. But the key to the puzzle always began with simply noticing what we were hearing. The engagement with sound, as shaped by composers and performers, is after all what music, uniquely has to offer.
These observations are not intended as an argument against audience education. I’m all for it, always have been. I attended the Chicago Symphony’s “Beyond the Score” program at Carnegie Hall last December. It was an elaborate, multi-media, contextualization of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, weaving together spoken text, video, art, and music. It overflows with information about Bartók, his time, his contemporaries, and the general state of world. I left the performance with a far richer knowledge of Bartók’s work. I couldn’t help notice however that what made the presentation work as an experience that really changed my perception of the work was the high degree of artistry applied to the presentation. It wasn’t the information that got to me, it was the art.