One of the many interesting things my job involves is listening to live concerts by solo artists and ensembles whom we might invite to perform on a Schubert Club series. You can learn a lot from a demo recording of course, but not everything. In fact, the most important thing you can learn from a demo (or commercial) recording is that a particular musician or ensemble is probably not destined for the priority list.
In recent weeks I’ve found myself with the opportunity to hear quite a few concerts. It got me thinking about what my criteria are for ranking and prioritizing potential Schubert Club guests. I’ve narrowed it down to 3 areas: technique, interest (substance) and communication.
Technical ability is probably the least important, simply because there’s such a high level of proficiency among professional soloists and ensembles these days. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that if you ever get the impression at a concert that a piece of music is really difficult and pushing the performer(s) to their limit, then it’s probably more a reflection on the limitations of the artist than the technical problems of a piece of music. Great performances usually transcend technical difficulties.
So, the more important question is whether a performance is interesting, meaning does it capture my attention, unlock the imagination? That comes down to choices a musician makes around musical colors and textures, variation, consistency of approach, creating tension, the overall shape of a piece, tastefulness and context. Much of this is subjective, which is why it’s okay, indeed healthy, for people to disagree after a concert whether they liked it or not.
Thirdly, there’s the issue of communication. Unlike a recording, an artist or ensemble on stage with a live audience has to acknowledge the audience is there and perform for them. Singers maybe have the advantage of words to articulate, but instrumental music is a language too, and the live concert experience is about communicating. I’ve written before about the importance of communication among musicians in an ensemble, but just as important is that those making the music are expressing something they believe in to those who are listening. That sounds a little “obvious” when written down, but think of recent concerts you have attended and ask yourself whether this has always been the case. The most memorable concerts I’ve attended are those at which that communication has been strong and convincing.
Lucky for us, there are many, many musicians and ensembles across the world who deliver at the highest level. Our lives are more enriched for having the exposure to them.
Barry Kempton is Artistic & Executive Director of The Schubert Club. Originally from the UK, his previous management experience spans 25 years at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia.
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