To speak or not to speak…

By Barry Kempton

During the 25+ years I’ve been involved in classical music management, attitudes to artists addressing audiences from the stage have changed—but not that much.

I remember, still with some embarrassment, a post-concert experience some 15 years ago, when an audience member accosted a popular and highly articulate SPCO conductor with the question, “Why do you have to talk during the concert?” Fortunately the quick-witted conductor was able to point at me and reply with complete honesty, “Because he asked me to.”

That self-assured, almost angry challenge caused me to question my belief that encouraging artists to address the audience was a good thing. Certainly for that particular music lover and probably others too, the spoken word broke (or at least interrupted) the musical spell he had paid to experience. But as I’ve talked to many other audience members both in the States and in the UK, I have had my belief affirmed that the majority of audience members welcome and warm to a greeting and occasional observations by performers.

There are of course some factors to take into account. It’s important that the artist has something of interest to say. It doesn’t need to be highly erudite; in fact the most charming comments usually aren’t. Rather, they offer some personal insight into the music or can even be self-effacing. It also helps if the audience can clearly hear what is said. We’ve run into this problem a few times at various Schubert Club performances since I’ve been here in venues large and small. To address audibility problems in smaller-scale venues like our lunchtime Courtroom Concerts series at Landmark Center, I’m pleased to report that The Schubert Club has invested in a new portable sound system. About the size of a golf bag on wheels but a lot heavier, it made its debut last Thursday. Composer-in-residence and presenter of that series, Abbie Betinis, may not need a mic – she has learned to project her spoken voice. It probably helps that Abbie’s a professional (and very talented) singer. But many of the guest artists are soft-spoken, and audience members have struggled to hear the wonderful conversations Abbie leads.

The scale of venue and the formality of a series is definitely a factor. It’s easy to encourage artists to speak when the performance space is intimate. But what about our International Artist Series at Ordway Center with an audience up to 1900? Though a different ambience from chamber music in a “salon” or church, I still feel that if we can find a way to ensure everyone can hear, we should encourage performers to consider making that additional connection with their audience. “Encourage” but not “require”, since demanding rarely leads to a good outcome. The biggest challenge quite honestly is the microphone. Many performers tell me that addressing the audience is something they want to do spontaneously and only if they feel inclined. The offer of having a mic available on stage in case they want to speak seems to lead many artists to opt against saying anything. For the time being, I expect most of our Ordway recitalists will continue to decline to speak, but that won’t stop me continuing to propose it.