Let me say, first, that I am all about making classical music accessible. I consistently break the fourth wall in my solo performances by speaking and interacting with the audience, and I had that whole video thing going on in CHROMA, and in the orchestra I support the additions of multimedia presentations and conductor speeches and sponsor speeches and interactive intermissions and blue jeans concerts and all of the other innovations that groups come up with to make music friendly, and engaging, and relevant to the new generation of symphony-goers. I want the audience to recognize us as people, and to collaborate with us in making the experience enjoyable. This movement in the symphonic world is a good one, I believe.
But I played the B Minor Mass last night at Valparaiso University. The experience could not have been more different. The group performed with a level of formality I haven’t seen in years. The orchestra waited on stage, courteously hushed. The choir filed in to applause and seated themselves on a silent signal. We tuned, and the conductor and soloists entered and bowed formally, and then we began. Not a word had been spoken, not even a reminder about flash photography and fire exits. No attempt was made to ease the audience in, no remarks about Bach’s place in the historical canon or about the significance of the Latin mass or descriptions of the fugues or admissions of difficulties for the chorus or anything.
We then played the entire two hour work without intermission. And Bach’s B Minor Mass is an astounding piece. The audience was deeply, breathlessly silent throughout - I’ve been getting over a cold and even between movements had to stifle my coughs lest I be the one to break the spell. At the end of the evening, the piece ends with a rapturous fugue on Dona Nobis Pacem - Give us Peace. The final chord hung in the air for a long time. The conductor’s arms held the silence, held it, held it… held it… and finally relaxed. The applause was warm and long. I had a clear sense that we all - the choir, the orchestra, and the thousand or so audience members - had been on a journey together. A long one, a meaningful one. In that enormous chapel, we were all brothers at that moment, had all experienced something real and intense and personal and communal all at once.
Would this experience have been diminished by our customary thanking of sponsors and requesting donations? If we had tried to make ourselves more approachable, would Bach’s great Mass have been less monumental? If we had spoken between the big sections instead of taking a small, silent break, would the mood have been shattered? Is this concert experience, perhaps alienatingly formal to a layperson, actually a more immediate route to the kind of transformative, transcendent performances that might create diehard fans?
I don’t necessarily think so - I still respect the effort to reach out to an audience not well-versed in our field - but a concert like last night’s does make me think. It was an amazing performance, a special night, a precious one. The level of concentration from EVERYONE involved was just top-notch, and something we don’t often get from the symphonic stage.
Was it the format? Or just the Bach?