When it comes to music performance, talk isn’t cheap, it’s invaluable

Programmes are invaluable for concert-goers, and a little discussion from performers rarely does any harm

It’s a rare thing to find a classical concert without printed programme notes of some sort. Sometimes performers give spoken introductions to concerts. They may want to add some extra information that’s not been mentioned, dissent from some point the programme note writer has made, or offer a personal slant on what’s going to be heard. At the other extreme, there are promoters who don’t bother, and who leave listeners to their own devices.

My own experience is that audiences like it when performers talk, no matter how casual or trivial the content. Talking adds a point of contact that would not otherwise be there. I can’t imagine that performers are unaffected by a bit of chat or banter. But, even if the words from the stage don’t change the performances one iota, they always change the way in which those performances are received.

The importance of talk can be gauged by the frequency with which promoters now put on pre-concert talks and interviews, often involving performers or composers directly involved with the concert. However, those events usually reach only a few dozen of the hundreds who attend the concert or the hundreds who choose to pay for programmes.

For many people, the programme is an important point of contact. It lists what’s going to be played and usually tells you how many sections individual pieces are broken up into and who’s going to perform. And it often provides more detailed information, and sometimes some analytical background to the music. The clarity and informativeness of programmes are especially important to anyone who is new to concert-going.


Role of talk and programmes

The six concerts I attended during the past week provided interesting slants on the role of talk and programmes. Three of those concerts were part of the Irish Composers' Collective's 10th birthday celebrations at the Project Arts Centre. The celebration ran to eight concerts, with the collective's 140 current and past members represented through a selection of about 50 works.

None of the three concerts on Wednesday followed the printed order, and all involved talk. There were introductions from ICC chairman Sebastian Adams, and from the performers: David Adams (playing harpsichord and piano, including both at once); the Kirkos Ensemble; and the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet. I got an insert with the correct order for the first concert, had to borrow one from the person next to me for the second, and the printed order was irrelevant for the third.

The presentation style was informal, the notes short, the banter often self-deprecating. The ConTempos were the loosest when it came to normal concert etiquette. There was what looked like a busker’s hat on the floor before the concert started. But it didn’t contain any money, just the wrapped-up names of all the composers involved, and the playing order was decided by audience members who dipped into the hat before each piece. The ConTempos also insisted that each of the composers stand up to introduce their work. Engagement and the breaking-down of conventional barriers is clearly high on their agenda.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra presented a concert with a difference at the RDS on Thursday. The programme mixed actual chamber music (one-to-a-part performances of works by Prokofiev and Jörg Widmann) with orchestral music (two symphonies for string orchestra by the teenage Mendelssohn, conducted by Widmann).

It also included an appearance by the aerial dancers of Fidget Feet. But what they were going to do was by no means apparent, in spite of the presence of a trapeze and a suspended metal coil behind and to the side of the performing space.

People seemed to have assumed the aerial spectacle was an add-on of some kind. In fact, it was presented as part of the performance of Prokofiev's Quintet Op 39, the music of which originally appeared in a long-forgotten circus ballet, Trapeze.

People were left to figure it out themselves, and the programme note made no mention of the ICO's effective revival of the quintet as the ballet Trapeze. The overall programme did have a title, Wunderkind 3, a reference to the young Mendelssohn, which also went unexplained, and some kind of elaboration of thinking behind the combination of orchestral and chamber works would have been interesting.

Friday's RTÉ NSO programme also had what you might call an orphaned title, Master Magician. I suppose you could imagine any creative artist to be in some sense a master magician. But this was not a reference to Glinka, Mozart or Tchaikovsky, but to the evening's conductor and soloist, violinist Julian Rachlin.

To unravel the connection, you would have to go back to the orchestra’s season brochure, where “musical magic” (a quote from me, referring to Rachlin’s 2013 concert with the orchestra as a highlight of the year) was turned into the headline “Master magician”. How people were supposed to work this out, I have no idea.

The old issue of when to applaud, and when not to, has been raising its head again. Austrian mezzo soprano Angelika Kirchschlager encountered it after her first song on Sunday afternoon. She deftly advised the audience that they didn’t have to clap after every song, unless they really had to. She sounded both amusing and amused to be making the explanation, and she delivered songs by Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and Liszt with an unfettered directness and sincerity that you could easily relate to her speaking persona.

Rachlin a class act

The ICO played a blinder under Widmann, stiffening the spine of the young Mendelssohn’s muscle-stretching exercises, negotiating the asperities of the Prokofiev Quintet with aplomb (I thought it gained from the combination with dance), and skilfully handling the stark chiaroscuro of some of Widmann’s own duos for violin and cello.

Rachlin was again a class act with the NSO, bringing polish to Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, elegance to Mozart's Violin Concerto No 5, and unusual weight to Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.

The most memorable works I heard at the Project were Aran O'Grady's Two Pieces (not for the actual music, but for the idea of splitting the performer's hands between harpsichord and piano), and two of the string quartets, the mostly meditative melancholy of Anna Clifford's A Healthy Sadness, and the witty whimsy of Eoghan Desmond's Flights of Fancie.