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!