Sunday, June 13, 2010

Who is in the Audience?

I have never tried to hide the premise that the writing I do for is directed at "serious listeners." At the same time I am well aware that, regardless of the performance I happen to be attending, it is probably the case that most of the people sitting around me do not share my seriousness of purpose. In recent correspondence with a colleague about the sort of point of view that a performer might take towards the audience, I wrote the following:

I have been (often) reminded that most people in the audience are there for "entertainment" rather than "work." They are not interested in whether or not that entertainment may actually be enabled by the work. They just want to tune out the world outside the performing space.

I intended this as a non-judgmental statement of a societal norm. I realize that this is an instance of what I have called "that all-purpose escape clause, 'it is what it is;'" but in this case I take it as guarding against having any grandiose illusions about what I do!

Beyond those illusions lies a possible motivating force for why one writes at all. It is not strictly a matter of writing for those who are interested. Rather it involves writing for those who might be interested, hopefully in an encouraging enough way that one offers a "hook" for that transition from "might be" to "are." That hook does not necessarily involve seeking out "entertaining" aspects of the experience. A good case in point is how my eminent predecessor as SF Classical Music Examiner, Scott Foglesong, prepared a preconcert talk at Davies Symphony hall for a performance of the eighth C minor symphony (Opus 65) of Dmitri Shostakovich. When I reviewed the recent Naxos recording of this symphony conducted by Vasily Petrenko (who had also been the conductor at Davies), I described his approach as follows:

As Scott Foglesong observed in the preconcert talk he prepared for this event, Opus 65 is probably the most despondent of Shostakovich's symphonies, so much so that he felt that, after reviewing the work, Foglesong could not ask anyone to "enjoy" the performance. Instead, he chose to conclude by wishing "The Force be with you" to his audience. When the time came for those of us on the audience side to experience Petrenko's performance, we could appreciate Foglesong's conclusion. The expressiveness of this symphony is so unrelenting that it takes a certain strength of character for a listener to accompany both composer and his performers on this particular journey. Nevertheless, with the power of such a "Force," the occasion etched itself clearly into memory and, like any important memory, created a desire that the experience could be refreshed.

This is probably the best case study I could imagine. It is absurd (or pathological) to think that one would be "entertained" by this Shostakovich symphony. One can either "get into" the experience (and be "guided by the Force"); or one can choose to ignore it. There is no acceptable middle ground.

So, for the sake of argument, let us assume that the prevailing opinion in the audience is, "Why would I want to do such a thing as be guided by that Force?" I feel that Foglesong set a standard that I try to follow. It is not a matter of harnessing all of the rhetorical powers of persuasion to answer that question. Rather, the question can be set aside; and the rhetoric can be exchanged for description. One says (or writes) "This is what happens" and leaves it to the inquisitive nature of the reader/listener to decide whether or not to be a party to that happening. Where my own writing is concerned, I had the interesting challenge of approaching this particular piece of music both retrospectively (in reviewing the San Francisco Symphony performance) and prospectively (in writing about a CD that any reader could purchase); and I decided to use the Symphony performance as a point of reference for the CD review as a way to acknowledge that, for at least some readers, prospection would be informed by retrospection.

This kind of commitment to description is no an easy matter, but it is a challenge I always seem to enjoy. I also see it as an important distinction between "examining" and "reviewing." Those interested in entertainment often seek out reviews to answer the question, "Will I enjoy myself?" I am more interested in the extent to which description can create interest in a new experience, even if that experience does not necessarily entail enjoyment. Some might dismiss this as an "academic pursuit." I prefer to think of it as a writing goal to bear in mind, even if I do not always succeed in achieving it!

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