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jonadkins

The recitalist speaks

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I attended a recital given by Simon Preston on the Frobenius at Kingston upon Thames. This was the first time I had actually heard SP in the flesh, and wheras I was expecting, and got, wonderful playing, what I was expecting less was a somewhat gallows humour. He played, as one might expect this year, Liszt's Ad nos and some Messiaen. He prefaced this by saying:

 

" I suppose, in a way I should apologise for playing these two composers, as they divide people so much. One either loves it or hates it. The only thing I can say is that the Liszt lasts for half an hour, so those that began by loving it might hate it by the end!

 

Needless to say, given his performance I doubted there would be any who "hated it by the end" but it did make me think of this issue of addressing the audience.

Have you heard any classic examples, that were witty, interesting, and enhanced the recital?

Any disasters?

If you regularly give recitals, do you say anything?

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If it's a full-length concert - say an hour and a half including interval - I like to talk to the audience. It breaks the ice and I think people like to see more of the player than just the top of his head or the back of his jacket. If it's a short concert - I play a half-hour programme every Wednesday lunch-time at the Cathedral here in St. John's - I think it's better just to play. There's not time to talk as well, but I make sure I'm at the door to welcome folk coming in and chat on the way out.

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I think it's important that the audience has some information about what is going to be presented to them - either by having an introduction (preferably brief) or some program notes. I think to have neither is not good. Similarly to have the programme notes read to you and embellished upon is not good either! I think it depends on the kind of audience your expecting and the content of the recital.

 

John Kitchen in Edinburgh is brilliant at introducing recitals in the Usher Hall where he is City Organist. He only plays for 40 mins, but speaks between pieces and entertains the audience really well. Similarly in his University series detailed programme notes are provided and the concerts don't tend to be introduced.

 

I personally find praying before a church recital, which is a common practice in some denominations, a bit prone to making me extra nervous before starting - it's just the uncomfortable silence from which you have to begin that I don't like. Plus I'm always worried I'll knock a key during the prayer. Somehow it always feels much different to service planning for me!

 

How about dealing with faults during a recital? Should you draw attention to it to the audience and gain a laugh (or indeed make a point about lousy maintenance if that's the case...) or should you deal with it as though nothing had happened) Almost every organist around will have this happen once in a while. Recently I did a recital where I got a cypher on the swell 16'tpt during a piece. Luckily I quickly found the cyphering stop and pushed it in. Problem was I needed that stop for the next piece, so between pieces I selected the stop - the cypher presented itself again - and mid concert I had to have a quick fiddle to try and release it! Once released I turned to the audience and made a small comment which caused a ripple of laughter, but on the other hand probably embarrassed my other half and the organist of the church!

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I forgot to say - I always provide programme notes, so it's not vital to speak between pieces.

 

I have occasionally had to remedy minor faults during a concert, but the beast here behaves itself remarkably well considering it's well overdue for an overhaul. If I have to go inside, I will tell the audience what's wrong and what I'm going to do.

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I think it depends on the nature of the recital but generally I prefer it if the recitalist speaks to introduce his pieces. The organist is such a remote performer that I feel anything to improve the connection with the audience can only be encouraged. Of course, it is not appropriate to speak at some recitals, in which case I am disappointed if there aren't good programme notes.

 

However, the recitalist must have something interesting and useful to say. I get irritated if I hear something inane like "and now we're going to listen to a nice piece of Bach ... Bach the next piece" or just hear a repeat of the programme notes. But I have listened spellbound to some performers talk about their pieces. If the performer has little to say about the music before he plays it, I feel it is likely he will have little to say when he plays it. I want to hear (or read) things that expand my appreciation of what I'm listening to. And the way they speak tells you a lot about what they're going to be like on the bench - from Virgil Fox's dizzying enthusiasm to the erudyte brilliance of someone like Simon Jonstone or Pier Damiano Peretti.

 

Funny stories are fine as long as they're relevant to the concert or the music - I like to be amused and I feel it is miserable and perverse to exclude the possibility of laughter at a concert. To laugh is a very natural, human, thing to do. However, if it's too jokey, or not connected in any way to the music or the concert, it feels like the recitalist is insecure in what he is doing.

 

Speaking at recitals varies so much from place to place it's difficult to have hard and fast rules. If the console is on display right in front of the audience it's easy to address the audience between pieces but it's a different matter if the console is halfway up the side of the wall accessed by a precarious and lengthy staircase. And, please, sort out the microphone and be sure you know how to use it before the recital.

 

I think some recitalists get more nervous if they have to speak to the audience, although I don't belong to that group myself. I've attended one recital where the organist sat at the console while somebody else said some introductory words to each piece. It was very weird really - I wanted that personal connection with the recitalist but it just made him even more remote than if nothing had been said. I couldn't do that myself - I want that connection with my audience.

 

I really cannot abide a recitalist making excuses for the organ. It comes across as so anoraky. I've come to listen to a musician play music on a musical instrument: I haven't come to hear an enthusiast make excuses why the object of their enthusiasm is not 100% that day. The focus is on the music and the performance, not the problems with the organ. It comes across as being unprepared too - if there's a problem with the organ or if it's not up to the task, why are you holding a concert on it? If something goes disasterously wrong, then just deal with it as you would any other calamity in the concert, like the roof caving in, the organ catching fire, a Viking invasion and don't worry the audience about the risks beforehard.

 

When I arrive at an organ recital, I want to find my seat, get comfortable, peruse the programme, check out the audience for people I know/ people I want to avoid/ people I want to talk to/ fit women (same group really; they're a rarity at organ recitals but we live in hope), contemplate the beauty (or otherwise) of the organ and its surroundings and wonder what I'm going to listen to and how the performer is going to play it.

 

I'm not a great fan of greeting or being greeted by the recitalist as I arrive. Personnally I don't want to have a complete stranger introduce themselves when I walk into an auditorium to have a few awkward moments of conversation when we both feel compelled to be polite to each other for no particular reason with nothing in particular to say to each other. It devalues the social status of the performer to be there greeting people as they arrive. They so often stand there looking like an spare part near the ticket selling desk. I've come to hear them play - I haven't come for them to try to make me feel personally welcome before I take my seat. Vladimir Askenazy isn't there on the door of the auditorium to greet everyone personally when he gives a piano recital - why should an organist be any different?

 

The start of a recital is a critical time for me. I like it when the lights dim, an expectant silence falls on the audience and applause breaks out when the performer appears. It's all part of the theatre and spectacle for me and the excitement of the journey to reach the recital reaches its peak. I don't want to hear a poor speaker welcome everybody in a homely or prolix manner, make bad jokes, pray, give announcements to unrelated groups of people and generally waste people's time before the performer appears. It takes away all the energy that has built up to that point.

 

If I'm playing, I usually like some peace and quiet before the recital, where I can rehearse in my mind what I'm going to do, calm my nerves, preferably in solitude, sunlight and comfort. I also like to have had plenty of time to prepare and practice on the organ with no distractions and to be fully prepared. The last thing I want is any shocks or any stressful situations before a recital.

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It certainly adds to the experience if the recitalist has something interesting to say and is, where appropriate, able to inject some humour. Ian Tracey is a past master at speaking between pieces and his annual recitals at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, draw audiences higher than the venue's average. I have encouraged a number of people to attend Ian Tracey recitals at Hanley, most of them considering themselves initially lukewarm about organ music and organ recitals. But they find Ian's inter-piece talks so interesting and often highly amusing that they readily return to hear him and other recitalists.

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likewise, mr SG lindley, marvellous after dinner speaker, and wether its his "home ground" of LPC or the town hall, he is always witty and good at talking about what it is he is going to play and drawing attention to any particular registration. I like to think that quite a few organists are like him. Then there is a friend of mine, when playing his recital in Durham Cathedral, was sweating and visibly shaking, but "5 quiet minutes" at the console, during JBL's introduction (with a payer), he was calm and had collected his thoughts, before giving his small talk to the gathered masses (exagerating a bit, maybe 200)

 

Peter

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The late Charles MacDonald gave a series of lunch-time recitals in the Meeting House at the University of Sussex. He owned a music shop, and at the beginning of a recital he would hand out copies of some of the scores, with the words, "So that you can check that I'm playing the right notes." He is much missed.

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On the subject of whether the recitalist speaks or not will depend on the audience and venue. For example Organs recitals held at the Westminster Abbey & St Paul's I have never seen a recitalist talk before the recital. I also do find it a little disconcerting when some recitalists come across as patronising and lecture the audience on the pieces they are about to play or will play if like the American said just got on with it. If programme notes are given I don't really see the point in wasting your time giving a lecture on the history of the composer and the background to the piece. Also, U are not a stand up comedian. So it's not necessary to add humour in order to persuade your audience it's gonna be the recital of the century they are attending. The audience will make it's own mind up if the recital was sucessful or not. Also, know your audience. Don't assume there is not other Organist's or possibly lecturers listening to what u have to say or indeed play.

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I suppose it depends on the mood at the time and place. My last concert was an all Handel programme with me on the organ and a few singers. There was a quick introduction at the start and the organiser introduced us all before we started. There were programme notes so introductions weren't needed beyond that. At the end of the concert, however, I did address the audience to thank them for their attendance etc and as the last item was a collective hallelujah chrous, told the story about the king standing up etc

 

So it's nice I think to speak perhaps at the start or near the end to establish a more personal connection with the audience, but I wouldn't do it between EVERY item.

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I like to speak to my audiences if at all possible, giving them potted history of composer and work, with at least one interesting bit of trivia or anecdote concerning composer and/or music in question. Sometimes, if I've put together a programme with a thread running through it - a common style, geographical links or other relationships between the composers, for example - I'll use my speeches to highlight that.

 

If the audience has printed programme notes, I speak less - perhaps just to add some anecdote or other for which there wasn't room in the programme. In any case, I find it can help to save time and keep the music flowing more easily if I introduce some items but not others, or use a speech between two works to refer to both the preceding and following items. (E.g. "A lovely and sunny piece, I'm sure you'll agree, and it's unique amongst JSB's organ works, being his only Prelude and Fugue in A major. The next piece is from an earlier generation, and shows something of the influence on JSB....")

 

Audiences almost certainly appreciate the odd relevant joke now and then: not only does it enhance their enjoyment of the performance but it "humanises" the organist, making him (or her) seem less like the stereotype of stuffy, dour and even strict person operating a dusty machine in dark stony churches. When introducing Lefebure-Wely's Sortie No. 2 to an audience recently, I told them that "he is very well-known in England for his Sortie No. 3 in E flat, which is extremely popular and sounds like a fairground piece. His Sortie No. 1 in B flat is also very popular and sounds like a fairground piece. This Sortie No. 2 in B flat is not at all popular ... and sounds like a fairground piece." That tickled them somewhat!

 

Some of the best recital speeches I've heard have come from, in no particular order: Peter King, Ian Tracey, Roger Fisher, Francis Jackson, Simon Lindley, Timothy Byram-Wigfield, Martin Neary, Peter Dyke and Gordon Stewart. Each knows how to educate and amuse within the same breath!

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I like to speak to my audiences if at all possible, giving them potted history of composer and work, with at least one interesting bit of trivia or anecdote concerning composer and/or music in question. Sometimes, if I've put together a programme with a thread running through it - a common style, geographical links or other relationships between the composers, for example - I'll use my speeches to highlight that.

 

If the audience has printed programme notes, I speak less - perhaps just to add some anecdote or other for which there wasn't room in the programme. In any case, I find it can help to save time and keep the music flowing more easily if I introduce some items but not others, or use a speech between two works to refer to both the preceding and following items. (E.g. "A lovely and sunny piece, I'm sure you'll agree, and it's unique amongst JSB's organ works, being his only Prelude and Fugue in A major. The next piece is from an earlier generation, and shows something of the influence on JSB....")

 

Audiences almost certainly appreciate the odd relevant joke now and then: not only does it enhance their enjoyment of the performance but it "humanises" the organist, making him (or her) seem less like the stereotype of stuffy, dour and even strict person operating a dusty machine in dark stony churches. When introducing Lefebure-Wely's Sortie No. 2 to an audience recently, I told them that "he is very well-known in England for his Sortie No. 3 in E flat, which is extremely popular and sounds like a fairground piece. His Sortie No. 1 in B flat is also very popular and sounds like a fairground piece. This Sortie No. 2 in B flat is not at all popular ... and sounds like a fairground piece." That tickled them somewhat!

 

Some of the best recital speeches I've heard have come from, in no particular order: Peter King, Ian Tracey, Roger Fisher, Francis Jackson, Simon Lindley, Timothy Byram-Wigfield, Martin Neary, Peter Dyke and Gordon Stewart. Each knows how to educate and amuse within the same breath!

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With respect you have forgotten to mention CARLO CURLEY who always speaks to his audience where his enthusiasm and vast knowledge is very apparent.

Carlo always manages to relax his audience, and I would miss his witty asides if he decided to not speak between musical items.

Colin Richell.

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With respect you have forgotten to mention CARLO CURLEY who always speaks to his audience where his enthusiasm and vast knowledge is very apparent.

Carlo always manages to relax his audience, and I would miss his witty asides if he decided to not speak between musical items.

Colin Richell.

 

I was referring to players I've heard live ... but I have heard Carlo on video and he is indeed a gifted speaker. Of course, it's his mission to extol the organ in all circumstances, so his style of presentation has been developed to reflect that objective.

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Unfortunately, C C's vocal interludes often last longer than the pieces being introduced. The last recital of his that I attended, several people felt distinctly short-changed. Every piece was less than 5 minutes, mostly whimsical stuff.

 

H

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Whether or not one likes Carlo Curley's style, I think most of us would agree that he is what we need more of: a genuine and earnest evangelist of the organ and its music.

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