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Performer biographies are useless contributions to printed concert programmes

By John Terauds on November 22, 2012

(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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