Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

Feel free to email your comments.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Hello People

Recently our orchestra changed the recorded pre-concert announcements. I'm curious what people think about it.

Some history for those not in the know. A few years ago, the orchestra began using a recorded announcement before each concert to remind audience members to turn off cellphones, refrain from taking photographs or making recordings. The announcements ended with the wish that people enjoy the performance (oddly, this last item outraged at least one of my colleagues – yes, we are home to some weird points of view). These recorded messages, played when the lights went up and the orchestra quieted down, before the emergence of the concertmaster, featured voices of various musical 'celebrities'. The quality ranged from witty, perhaps chuckle-worthy (Ax, Bronfman) to the cringe-inducing (Lang Lang). Whatever agreements were made to allow the use of these recording must have run out, because earlier this year (maybe before that, I can't remember) they were all replaced with one standard message read by someone on staff

A few weeks ago new recordings featuring orchestra members appeared. After introducing themselves and making some sort of witty or engaging remark, the musicians go on to make necessary reminders about cellphones, recording, and concert enjoyment. I admit to complete cluelessness about how people are chosen for this – as part of a New Year's resolution I stopped checking my orchestra mailbox months ago – but I have a feeling it is being done on a volunteer basis. I don't think I've heard all of them yet, and perhaps more are being produced as I write, but so far there have been two string players, two or three woodwinds, and a percussionist. I have a feeling if the 'musicians' had been put in charge of finding people, we would have had three bass players and a librarian to start with, so in the beginning at least, the balance seems pretty good.

As with anything, there is some debate as to the value of these announcements. I think I've heard people (well, musicians anyway) claim they undermine the dignity of the concert, but I have a feeling some of the same folks who make that argument will switch sides and battle against our Music Director when he asks us to warm up offstage and then file on, letting the music emerge from a very dignified silence. This is an idea I've opposed in the past, more for my own sense of comfort than any thought to the audience experience. I like to get onstage a bit early, line up my cough-drops, catch up on a bit of the practicing I didn't do at home, and see what sort of audience we've managed to draw that evening. But I suppose if I considered the audience perspective, I might feel differently. It would be strange indeed to arrive at a theater half an hour before curtain to find the stage roiling with activity. Hamlet and Polonius strut about, trying their lines. The ghost, adjusting his sheet, chats with Ophelia, who is clipping her nails. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern obviously have more substantial roles in the next production because they are loudly reciting lines from Henry V. Completing the scene, a few of the soldiers have formed a line and are bellowing, BAH! BAH! BAH! repeatedly at the top of their lungs. Where's the dignity in that?

Anyhow, I'm curious to hear if anyone has thoughts about pre-concert rituals.


zachzachzach said...

In my own experience as an audience member, and especially from the time before I ventured too far down the music school rabbit hole, the chance to see orchestra musicians going about their business before the concert was and is an enlightening and entertaining part of the concert-going experience. Warming up offstage might add a small amount of drama to the concert, but in this day and age, anything that has the potential to demystify the orchestra and enhance the experience of non-aficionados is worth maintaining.
Additionally, it's my belief that the dignity of the concert comes solely from the music being played and from the passion for and investment in the music that the musicians bring. I think most people would agree that when these elements are present, music can be captivating and dignified in almost any context. For musicians to argue that a pre-concert announcement somehow undermines their performance suggests to me that the real problem here might lie elsewhere. On a more pragmatic note, lots of people in the audience really do need that one last reminder to turn off their phone. Take it away, and you might end up with a much more annoying problem maintaining the dignity of the music.
Zach Hobin

PJ32 said...

I'm not a musician, but personally, I love seeing the pre-concert ritual. With prices what they are, I don't go to many concerts per season, so I look forward to the ones that I choose to attend. Seeing the activity on stage creates a sense of anticipation, and even excitement, that adds to the experience. Don't forget, there are quite a few audience members who have their own pre-concert ritual too...reading the program, checking out your seat mates, chatting with people you know, etc. Seeing the musicians just file on stage and take their places feels like I'm in church. If I wanted to go to church, I would find one and go. If a dignified silence is what the MD is looking for, then maybe we should be instructed to hold our applause for him and the concertmaster when they walk on stage. If we have to suffer the sound of the applause, then what does it matter what was happening a couple minutes before that?

Kyle Werner said...

When I have visited the large midwestern city in which you perform, and attended concerts of your orchestra, I have always enjoyed those celebrity announcements before the concert. I have not visited since the new announcements started, so I can't really express an opinion about those.

I always love watching musicians warm up on stage before a concert. For me it's like getting to smell dinner cooking before sitting down to eat it. I wouldn't want to give that up.

Ponder Stibbons said...

I'm another audience member who likes the pre-concert ritual. Reduces the austerity of the concert hall atmosphere.

Mike Macaulay said...

While I've never had the chance to hear the orchestra in which you perform live, I work as an usher in Calgary and have been a regular visitor at the Philharmonic for a few years. I've always found the sound of musicians warming up on stage a big part of the concert experience, and feel a special thrill hearing the tumult getting louder as I approach the auditorium door. I wouldn't want it any other way.

As for the pre-concert announcements, they may be a bit frustrating for veteran audience members, but I believe they're necessary. Concert etiquette just isn't something that most people are aware of these days. Even though I am a music student myself it has taken me a few years to really get the hang of how to behave at a concert, mostly through observing examples of obnoxious behaviour exhibited by other audience members. Quite simply, no one ever sat me down and told me that I mustn't whisper to my neighbour during a performance, or fiddle with the zipper on my bag, so I assume that most other young people are at least initially unaware of these mostly unspoken rules.

There are definitely some people who are dumb enough to take flash pictures in the middle of a piece even if they have been explicitly told not to, but many concert shutterbugs simply don't know that they shouldn't. As an usher, it's my job to stop someone if they start taking pictures, and this is nearly impossible to do without causing an even greater disruption. From personal experience, there are noticeably fewer problems with illicit recording/photo taking on the nights when an announcement is made from the stage immediately before the show.

jimbob said...

in berlin, the basses warm up onstage.

MBodders said...

As an orchestral musician, I don't tune offstage, but if i did it might make some concerts less humdrum for us.

Richard said...

First, thank you for the explanation--I wondered what happened to all the celebrity announcers.

Second, I think the announcements are valuable. Though I've never gotten reception inside the hall anyway, plenty of audience members do, and several need the reminder. Go further! Tell them to silence those annoying watches that beep on the hour, inevitably ruining a quiet moment at 9:00.

Finally, I think the on-stage practice is something that concertgoers delight in and expect. I hope our new music director doesn't take it away.

Unknown said...

The celebrity announcements were cute at first, but I prefer the straightforward announcement by the CSO staffer. Certainly, an announcement is better than the illuminated message above the stage, a la Avery Fisher Hall.

I've never minded the on-stage warm-up, but I do appreciate the formality of a unison entrance. The visiting orchestras seem to file on as a group, and I've found that style to create more of a sense of occasion rather than giving away all the tricky bits before the concert.

Unknown said...

Maybe a better comparison is a baseball game? The true fans show up early to see their favorite stars take batting practice. I think music students in particular value the chance to hear how their heros prepare for a concert onstage.

David Royko said...

I don't have strong preferences about pre-concert announcements, etc. (Gary Stucka's has been amusing). But, one thing that seems to have gotten worse in recent years is the high-frequency squealing of hearing aids. And it's usually hard to spot precisely from whose ear it is emanating -- so a glare can't even be delivered!

Unknown said...

I'm an amateur musician (double bass, of course!) and a frequent concertgoer here in Boston. As an audience member, I like watching the orchestra warm up. I don't like when members of the BSO come on stage and have social time, which they seem to love to do (they don't stop during tuning!). By the way, BSO, Symphony Hall carries your conversations to the audience as well as it carries the music.

As a musician, I love to arrive at concert halls early and warm up extensively before the doors open. Once the doors are open, I like to avoid playing anything that will be recognizable from the evening's program (I feel like it's a spoiler). I also like reading the program notes and watching the audience.

sjid said...

Vision can be just another buzz word. Along with the likes of passon and commitment, it shows up sooner or later in the personality profile packaging of every conductor. But sometimes it describes more than a public relations fantasy. In performance, Muti has impressed me as an uncommenly thorough musician on many levels. His method suggests strong elements of devotion and respect, as one might expect of a curator or a guardian of an artistic tradition. We should take him at his word, he finds the CSO a uniquely competent orchestra which offers him a unique opportunity to serve music. I hope that he will realize his vision in every detail, including pre-concert activity.

We could describe concerts as exchanges between two more or less active parties, musicians and audience. It is appropriate for one of these parties to ask cooperation of the other when one of them has a history of being a little too active. Judging from their occasional ineffectiveness, the messages really are necessary. Alas, some need even more than a gentle, tactful, humorous reminder. The pillory is next. Stan Collins

Unknown said...

I play in the same Midwestern Orchestra as our Favorite Blogger, and actually recorded a pre-concert announcement just last week which (I assume) will make an appearance shortly at a concert.

According to the members of our management who are coordinating this effort, they get enormously positive feedback for anything which involves the individual members of the orchestra. Sure, there is a particular appeal to having a celebrity soloist record an announcement, but it's nice to know that our audience appears to care more about getting to know those of us who are on our stage week in and week out. After many years of going to various functions involving mingling musicians and audience members, I can't deny that large numbers of people in our audience really enjoy interacting with us. This is largely a Good Thing.

These particular announcements are probably less about finding the ideal way to tell everyone to shut their gadgets during the show than about simply finding a fresh way to do so. Once these get stale, who knows what they'll move on to. May I suggest: having a Federal Concert Marshall hidden in the audience who can tase anyone whose phone rings. Or whose hearing aid beeps. Or who coughs during a nice pianissimo...

eric said...

There's pre-concert announcements? Oh, I always wait until the last minute to show up to my seat. I find I can get at least 1-2 more drinks in me if I try hard enough while everyone else is scrambling to find a seat. Often it makes the performance more enjoyable, too!

Do the guest announcers receive a doublers fee? I certainly hope the union is involved in this important point. Likewise, does the announcer (if on stage) get to hold their hand up and wave "hi" as well? Certainly that could help us really understand there's people playing down on stage.

As far as playing before the concert, if everyone worried more about their drinks and less about the pre-concert warm up, there'd really be no issue.

Yum yum yum, a bottle of rum.
A bit for thou, a bit for thee,
enjoy the maestro, won't you please?

Michael Hovnanian said...

Now that you mention it - the European orchestras that stay offstage 'warming up' also usually have bars backstage.

Drew said...

I so hated the announcements from Lang Lang too. Thank God I'm not alone.

Frankly, I'm all for the announcements so long as it's someone reading the related bit about cell phones from Sam Bergman's rules on orchestra behavior.

I'm still waiting to see someone get bludgeoned by a bassoon (you have to read Sam's piece to get it).