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Formality and Intensity

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?


  1. I am so profoundly sorry to have missed the performance of the B Minor Mass. I knew it was happening, but…….
    Oh, what a grand, glorious, uplifting piece of music it is. The other one is a recording of Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ” with narration, recorded in the Cathedral of Cadiz.
    I don’t know if for this particular performance an on going commentary about the provenance and history of the work would have added much. In exchange you get the mournful solemnity of a great Mass, with ethereal sonorities that enter deeply into your soul, at least reminding all along that divinity is not absent.
    On balance I would definitely prefer verbal introductions and explanations of the works to be performed like the ones you have done, and for which I congratulate you. Why aren’t they emulated on a larger scale? In Chicago, Barenboim and Abbado often introduced works and explained things.
    I think more engagement and interaction between orchestra members and the public is desirable. That’s why I suggested, for starters, to open rehearsals to the public, at least occasionally.
    Many times, after a concert I ,as well as friends wished to talk with orchestra members, perhaps ask questions, congratulate them on their performance and thank them. But regrettably most of them are out of there while still in the process of encasing their instruments. Somebody ought to talk to somebody…

  2. Thanks, Dimitri.

    I have mentioned yet again to the good folks at the symphony that open rehearsals and post-concert receptions are good meeting-the-public tools, and they continue to graciously accept these suggestions.

    To defend my colleagues, though, I will point out that many people live hours away from South Bend - leaving the hall at 10 feels relaxed to me because I am separated from my couch and my glass of wine by only a few minutes, but if I had "miles to go before I sleep" I too would hustle out the door.


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