Blog: What makes a live concert memorable?

By Barry Kempton

I was talking with a friend recently about the live concerts we’ve been to over the years and some of the reasons these performances stick in our memories.  The context of our conversation was a discussion of the need for live music in our current digital world of compact discs, internet platforms like and of course affordable hi-fi equipment.  We can come back to that hot issue another day.

Try coming up with a list of the five most memorable live music performances you’ve attended as an audience member.  It’s not easy.  Here is the list I came up with today without (I might add) too much reflection – in no order of preference:

–          Thomas Quasthoff recital at The Schubert Club (2002)

–          Eighth Blackbird with Dawn Upshaw at Hancher Auditorium, University of Iowa (c. 2006)

–          Everything but the Girl at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall (c. 1990)

–          Concert performance of Cosí fan tutte by Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Charles Mackerras at the Edinburgh Festival (c. 1993)

–          Memorial service for conductor Richard Hickox by City of London Sinfonia and friends in St Paul’s Cathedral (2008)

Clearly there are some special factors that go into making certain events memorable.  In the case of the performance of Cosí fan tutte, I had been “camped” with the orchestra, six world class singers and Sir Charles Mackerras for the previous 12 days at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall as they made a recording for Telarc.  The service for Richard Hickox is especially memorable because it was for a friend and colleague who died so unexpectedly and in the prime of his conducting career.

But in addition to these particular circumstances, there are some common factors that are, I think, worth pointing out.

  1. Quality – great music played with extraordinary technical ability and musical understanding.
  2. Ambiance – at each of the above performances, the venue itself and the energy of the people attending the event somehow heightened the sense of occasion, something which could never happen listening to a recording or even watching an HD opera performance in a cinema.
  3. Charisma – in each of the above cases, the musicians on stage and the energy they invested in their performances was almost tangible.  I think it comes down to the genuine pleasure they themselves derived from the experience of performing live and their ability to convey this enjoyment to the audience.

If charisma is indeed the right word, I think this last factor is the one that is often missing in classical music performances.  It’s not that most classical musicians aren’t wholeheartedly engaged in and concentrating on the music they are performing.  I truly believe they are.  But somehow their passion for the music and their enjoyment of making music often isn’t communicated to the audience.  I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s something I believe the great performers have figured out.

This is something I think about a lot as I program our various Schubert Club series.