When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling…

I’m back at VFTP International Headquarters after a nice little vacation, which means my musical summer is officially over, and it’s back to the musical salt mines for another year of hard graft….

One thing that I enjoy about the slightly more laid-back work load of August is that it gives me some of my only opportunities all year to be a spectator at concerts. I did see some great concerts this summer, and some not-quite-great ones as well, and all have given me a lot to think about.

One thing I’ve noticed lately is that performers are smiling a lot more on stage these days.

I mean, a lot more.

Now, lest you think I am the world’s most miserable curmudgeon, I am not out today to write a blog post in opposition to smiling, but some of the smiling I’ve seen this summer has really gotten my back up.

Yes, I know classical musicians have a bit of a bad reputation for looking less-than-sunny, even unhappy on stage, but so do hard rockers and Miles Davis, and it hasn’t dented their popularity. However, what I really think bothers audience members is when we look uninvolved on stage. It certainly bothers me.

However, when someone is smiling through all four movements of Shostakovich 10 or the last chorus of the St Matthew Passion of Bach, I think something is really, really wrong, because surely that is the epitome of un-involvement.

I’m getting a bit tired of hearing how “you could just tell how much fun the musicians were having onstage by the way they were all smiling.” Frankly, it is not always appropriate to enjoy our work or to be congratulating ourselves in mid-phrase on how wonderfully we’re doing. An actor would never smile in the midst of Hamlet out of appreciation for the perfection of the writing or the lovely staging. The end of the St Matthew Passion is not the time to give your fellow performer a smile that says “hey, great bow stroke!” If you’re thinking about the piece in those terms at that moment, you’ve really let your audience down because you won’t have gotten anywhere close to the heart of the work. Likewise, when performers start mugging for the public in a way that contradicts and undermines the emotional content of the music we are cheapening the music. I’ve seen some pretty world-class cheapening lately, and it really worries me that all this mugging and showboating seems to be commented on mostly as good thing.

Of course, in happy music, smile! In joyful music, radiate joy. Cry if you like ,(I was quite moved to see one of Britain’s great singers in floods of tears taking bows at the end of one performance this summer- he had certainly been in the music to get to that place), scowl, close your eyes, laugh out loud, but be the music, or at least , for Pete’s sake don’t undermine the music. Don’t, dare I say it, RUIN the music.

There was a time in American orchestras when we were all taught that orchestra musicians should not move or emote in any way onstage. The idea is that you are not there to call attention to yourself or do anything that might detract from the music. For me, I love to see an orchestra play with physicality the way Berlin and Vienna do- I think it makes for more involved playing. However, it’s good to remember that too much contrived, mannered, superficial and trite stage business can take away from the music and even annoy the audience.

So, a simple plea- think before you smile.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

PS- How about your lists of Top 10 pieces, movements or moments any conductor or instrumentalist should be shot for smiling during? Maybe you think I should lighten up and smile a bit next time I do Mahler 6? Let’s have some comments!

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

3 comments on “When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling…”

  1. The Omniscient Mussel

    It’s a pity no one else took you up on this. The obvious answers are pieces about death and/or religious compositions, so Miss Mussel’s top ten looks something like:

    1. Four Last Songs
    2. Death and Transfiguration
    3. Kindertotenlieder
    4. Requiems of all sorts (Mozart, Verdi, Brahms etc)
    5. Mahler 2
    6. St Matthew’s Passion
    7. Shostakovich SQ 15
    8. George Crumb Black Angels
    9. Brahms Tragic Overture
    10. Penderecki Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

    Generally speaking, Miss Mussel is pro smiling if is context appropriate and, of course, a genuine emotion. Beethoven 5, transition between 3rd and 4th movements….at that moment the world is your oyster…how could you not smile?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Great list of examples, as well as just a great list of pieces.

    I can only guess that people are much more pro-smile than I am….

    However, you could just as easily make a list of works you MUST smile during.

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. Zoltan

    In catching up with your blog Ken, I’m a bit late.

    No top 10, just a few moments that come to mind:

    – Since today’s Shosti’s birthday, let’s start with the ending of the 4th Symphony. When was silence so desperate, and yet, with the last notes of the celesta, so hopeful?
    – The climax of the adagio in Bruckner’s 9th (though, I do have a smile at the end of the finale (if you care for the movement), but it’s a smile of being at the end of a long and difficult journey, not something being funny)
    – The first theme of the finale in Mahler’s 10th, played by the flute and then on the violins (it’s not sad music, just very moving in a “not funny” sense)
    – Much of Rachmaninoff, though, again, sometimes is just heartbreakingly beautiful music (the clarinet solo in the 2nd Symphony with some very detailed orchestration in the strings in my very amateurish opinion) or passionate gut-wrenching “key-banging” (cadenza of the 1st Piano Concerto and the ossia of the 3rd PC) rather than sad (but the Variations on a theme of Paganini has some great humor)

    – A piece where I have to smile (though, it’s a smile of confidence and with a tear in my eye) is the chorale near the end of Mahler’s 1st.

    – Hm, no real “funny” smile up until now… Ah, yes, in the finale of the Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto, near the end of it, there’s a moment where the piano is hard at banging into the keys, and I read somewhere a description, that it might be Shostakovich portraying his son’s key-banging while learning to play the piano (to whom the concerto was dedicated). Fall-down funny for me!

    I think I’ll be going now. We could have an all-night talk with smiling, “smiling” and “no-smile” moments in the history of music…

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