(Jack Ziegler cartoon for The New Yorker.)

So who reads performer biographies in concert programmes — and how do they help concertgoers?

Sometimes solutions to problems sit right under our noses.

The problem in question is making audiences comfortable with and connected to a performance of art music or opera. People talk about the concert hall being too formal, of the traditional format being forbidding. People keep talking about ways to change that — ways that mandate all sorts of complicated and expensive contortions.

But what about simple changes that don’t cost a thing?

A few words from a performer from the stage go a long way to break down barriers — a fact reinforced last night in comparing the friendly, chatty introductions to Toronto Symphony concerts by Peter Oundjian to the silence of the Montreal Symphony’s Kent Nagano.

Then there is the printed concert programme.

There’s been a lot of debate over what sort of descriptions should be in a programme.

For one thing, I maintain we should keep descriptions of key modulations out of the text, because the 12 people in the audience who really care about the key already know the details, or will discover them in their own good time.

Instead of letting my eyes glaze over at the performers’ biographies last night, I sat in Roy Thomson Hall staring at the boilerplate format of lists of names and orchestras and album releases and wondered who benefits from this information?

Does the fact that Alex Marwohl is the principal guest conductor of the Dessau Radio Symphony affect the way she will conduct tonight’s Brahms symphony?

Does the fact that Martha Cellist graduated from Juilliard assure us of a transcendant performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto?

No. These are just badges, like something sewn onto a girl guide’s shirt that mean a lot to the individual in questions but are utterly meaningless to everyone else at the live performance we will hear tonight and tomorrow and Sunday.

What about the conductor or soloist or even the associate principal viola’s life does matter to me, the listener, the person who sat through a TTC delay anxiously worrying about making it to the hall on time?

Their relationship to the composer and the work on the programme, that’s what.

An artist’s statement would be a totally relevant, enlightening way to shine light on the artist as a person, as well as personalising the performance itself. How they feel about a piece of music and its composer is guaranteed to affect the way it will sound when they present it to live ears and eyes.

To its credit, Tafelmusik, which sometimes see ways around obstacles other concert presenters don’t even notice, has been including interviews with its artists in its programmes for several seasons now, and they really do help make the musicmaking more personal.

Opera and theatre and ballet directors typically make a statement in the house programme to explain where they are coming from in their interpretation of a work — new or old.

Is a musical performance any different from theatre? The musician does, after all, have a story to tell and, if the audience does not understand it, the effort is wasted.

John Terauds

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11 Responses to Performer biographies are useless contributions to printed concert programmes

  1. Kieren MacMillan says:

    The focus on biographies is residue from the time (still lingering upon us, in many venues) when the musician was considered more important than the music. When we finally get past this phase — and the biography is entirely eliminated from printed programmes — I will only say, “Good riddance!”

  2. Nic Gotham says:

    I say a short bio emphasizing the composer’s interests and key features of his/her background is actually useful, but I agree that we don’t need to read the composer’s CV! Let’s just have 2-3 sentences.

  3. I agree about the interviews Tafelmusik has in their programs and I enjoy them. I don’t agree so much about the bios. I enjoy reading short bios to see the progression in the artist’s career development. Without ‘news’ papers this is the only means of obtaining this information. I don’t have time to google every artist I want to hear. I think anyone spending money on tickets should have this information. Ann

  4. Ellen Meyer says:

    I totally agree with this article. The artist bios and harmonic analysis of the works provide reading material for bored patrons. Maybe the programs should have a Sudoku on the back page for entertainment.

  5. Colin Eatock says:

    I agree that traditional bios and programme notes can be as dull as dishwater. However, expecting that every musician who wanders out on stage to play or sing will have something interesting to say (with words) about the music is a pretty tall order!

  6. Andrew Ager says:

    A slow news day at Musical Toronto…?

    A satisfying grumble from Mr. Eatock.

    Keep up the good work!

  7. Gee…make me feel great after labouring to rework a bio for Denis Matsuev’s Dec. 2 concert! Sudoku…great idea, as long as one doesn’t get so engrossed that they forget to listen to the music!

  8. chalmerschair says:

    Opera singers are the worst offenders; their “bios” consist of nothing more than a list of what roles they are singing with which opera companies. Who cares? Regarding program notes, they don’t have to be dull as dishwater. John Mayo’s notes for the Women’s Musical Club are literate, entertaining, and informative, as are Andrea Budgey’s for the Talisker Players. Both John and Andrea manage a) to describe the thread running through a programme – why these works in this order; and b) describe the music in non-technical terms that actually enhance one’s understanding and enjoyment.

  9. arundel says:

    As a frequent concert-goer, I am usually delighted when artists speak from the stage – it enriches the performance to hear their personal insights about the music. The program bios are harmless, though, and for the odd time when the music disappoints, they are a useful diversion. One thing that bugs me, though, are artist photos that are really outdated, barely resembling the person on stage… Music Toronto (at the St Lawrence Centre) is guilty of this all too often. Something else that enriches the program bios are notes about the artist’s instrument, especially for string players. And even better if they talk about their instruments from the stage. Isn’t it amazing to contemplate the history of a 200-year-old violin being played for us?

  10. Matthew Larkin says:

    Having solicited a lot of “bios” for programs (and from singers, in particular), I can definitely concur with your points. I try to rewrite my own biography for each program (undistinguished though it may be), so it isn’t just a recitation of what church jobs I’ve had, and I do often wish that performers would tell a little of themselves beyond simply listing their professional engagements. With respect to program notes, I doubt most readers are interested so much in the form of what they hear as in the aesthetic the music is intended to convey. I think there is much value in well-written notes which assist listeners in their appreciation of what they hear.

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