Songs Without Words

Sadly, there aren’t many youth discounts I can claim with any honesty these days. But I recently found myself just the right side of 35 to buy a cheeky £5 ticket to the Wigmore Hall. What this generously high threshold says about the demographics of their audiences I can only guess, but I was pleased, as it had been a regrettably long time since I’ve pulled up a pew in that hallowed chapel to chamber music. 

I was acting on a recommendation to hear the rarely-performed Richafort Requiem, along with some Josquin, sung by the Austria-based vocal ensemble Cinquecento. 

Perhaps this was a little too much Renaissance music for a Friday evening, because the hall was only patchily filled. I was even able to bag a seat near the front at the last minute – one I’ll have to shell out £40 for in six month’s time. 

More’s the pity – because the singing of this rather sober-looking choir was exquisite. The Richafort, with its rich six-part harmonies, was the stand-out work of the evening. 

And yet, for all this, something was missing.

It reminded me of another concert a few months ago. In Newbury, a local choir put together a programme celebrating ‘friendship’ between countries across Europe, as represented by their various composers. In the run-up to the original Brexit date of 29th March, I was amused by the undisguised political point being made. It also had a good mix of music I liked and music I was interested to hear, so I went along.

Perhaps I should have noticed something wasn’t right from the works list. You’d expect the theme of ‘friendship’ to bring out positive sentiments – maybe a saucy madrigal about women and wine, or something stirringly idealistic. Not so much. This choir, conducted by a former member of The Sixteen, went in heavy with the cloistered religious vibes. 

If this was the music of friendship, I thought, why was it on its knees in a cassock? Cornysh’s Woefully Arrayed was a case in point. A wonderful work in its own gothic way – and its title all too accurate about the state of UK politics right now – but it’s fair to say it won’t be replacing Ode To Joy as the EU anthem any time soon.

Still, at both Wigmore and in Newbury, the churchy bent of the repertoire wasn’t my main problem. At both I paid for my ticket, turned up and heard a good performance – to the choirs’ respective standards. The problem was a certain lack of warmth. There was nothing from the stage to make me feel welcome as part of either event. At both, the musicians…the musicians just didn’t say anything at all. 

Is that weird? Because I kinda think that’s weird.

Seriously: in what other genre of music could someone conduct a concert celebrating ‘friendship’ and give no verbal greeting to the audience whatsoever? No introduction to the pieces and why they were chosen, no ‘thank you for coming’ at the end? It gave the whole evening an absurdist tinge – and yet, sadly, I wasn’t even that surprised. 

This is a tendency I’ve seen too often – to treat classical music as something self-contained, divorced from any social context, and needing only a good performance to speak for itself. It seems to assume that the audience will be clued-up and engaged enough to enjoy it without recognition being made to them as fellow human beings, investing their time and money in an evening out.

Since the Wigmore recital, I’ve been thinking about this more. At an orchestral concert, it’s nice when a conductor makes an effort to introduce the programme, but it rarely feels like such a problem when they don’t – occasionally, when one decides to test out their alternative career as a comedian, silence seems like a blessing. And at an opera, you wouldn’t want to break the fourth wall before it’s begun.

I think the question is about the scale of the space and the music. In the same way that big cities are less friendly than small villages, in a more intimate recital it feels like a greater courtesy is owed to the audience. With a capella vocal music, that natural intimacy feels greater still. And intimacy without niceties is a strangely transactional affair, one that never fully satisfies.

Of course, in the case of international touring musicians like Cinquecento there is also the issue of language. We shouldn’t assume everyone can speak English, and with confidence –  although my experience of trying to speak German in Vienna and having good English spoken back to me makes me doubt it was an issue in this particular case.

And none of this is to underestimate how terrifying public speaking can be, on top of the stresses of musical performance. I don’t suppose it’s easy for most, and there’s surely an art to doing it really well. But, as shown by the strangely penitential repertoire in Newbury, there is a value in making it clear to an audience why the particular music has been chosen, and what it means to you.

So many musicians get this right. A few hours before the Wigmore concert, I went to a lunchtime recital by a young lutenist in St. Bride’s Church. He was evidently a shy man who preferred to let his fingers do the talking. But even he managed a few mumbled words about the pieces. It got me interested in what he was about to play. It made a difference.

I think that perhaps we don’t talk enough about how antisocial classical concerts are. To sit in silence is isolating. It’s the before, after and in-between where any social aspect comes into play – assuming you’re attending with friends. And if you’re the kind of sad loser like me who goes to the Wigmore on a Friday night on his own, an indifferent presentational style is especially disappointing. However good the music is, it ends up emphasising the loneliness of the experience.

Who were these singers, in relatable human terms? What did it mean for them to be performing the Richafort Requiem, or a selection of European pieces in the run-up to Brexit? I still don’t know – they couldn’t or wouldn’t say. The saddest thing of all is what it made me ask myself, as we filed out none the wiser: why am I doing this? 

Malcolm Arnold said that music is ‘a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is’. Like many great quotes, it’s a fine sentiment with some truth to it, but it brushes aside the caveats. At both concerts, I paid for a ticket and made a journey, only to leave feeling to some extent unacknowledged. What impression would this kind of silent treatment make to somebody attending live classical music for the first time?

I’m not a performing musician, and I’ve never studied at a conservatoire. So I’d be interested to know how much, if at all, such aspects of performance practice are discussed and taught at the highest level. If you have experience of this, I’d love to hear your views. Because intimacy without niceties will always feel weird to me.