Tuesday, March 2, 2010

...in which Winnie the Pooh inspires Twitter-like program notes

I've written a lot recently about how much I love bringing relatively random artistic elements together, but it's not always Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Sometimes, a bunch of stuff tossed together sounds like...a bunch of stuff tossed together. So it is that I've grown restless with our school's regular "General Recital" format in which a bunch of students perform whatever they happen to be working on and we slap it all together into a recital.

This year, I've taken on the job of trying to order the various elements into something balanced and cohesive, but since the recitals inevitably run longish (typically 20+ performances by pianists, strings, winds, singers, whatever), one can still sometimes sense the audience becoming catatonic. This isn't intended as a commentary on our students' performance abilities - it's just an unnatural thing we're trying to do, especially since we're not providing much context for our listeners (often parents who don't necessarily know their way around the repertoire). Context can be especially crucial for vocal pieces in foreign languages, but lots of instrumental pieces make more sense to those in the know as well.

It might be good training for our students to have them give little spoken intros, but that would only lengthen the program and possibly incite riots. Alternatively, who wants to turn back and forth 20+ times to pages of program notes? Not to mention, who wants to write program notes for 20+ separate pieces? Well, it turns out that I decided I wanted to do that, but not in the traditional way. Rather, mainly because I had a few hours to kill before attending a different concert, I decided to write up micro-program notes that could be incorporated right into the program. Finally, something for which my Twitter experience might pay off! Here's a sample of what they came out looking like (with names changed to protect the innocent):

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First of all, it was a fun challenge to write these notes. I knew about 75% of the pieces very well, and a little YouTube/iTunes surfing made it easy to get caught up on the essentials of the others, but the task of summarizing even a 3-minute song in one line is a good exercise in thinking about what we want an audience to hear. Especially for a program in which the performers and styles are changing so quickly (the pieces probably average about 5 minutes in length), the goal I had in mind is that the reader be able to, in one glance, see the title, composer, performer(s), AND get a quick sense of what's about to happen. The brevity of the descriptions also makes it much more likely that they will be read, without making the reader feel overly put upon.

The decision to use the "...in which" construction was not consciously made - it just kind of happened, as did the storybook-like references to "Mr. Bach." It was only later that one of my colleagues pointed out to me the "Pooh-bear"-ness of this approach. I think I thought I was borrowing more from E. M. Forster or Henry Fielding. A click through to the Forster link reveals chapter titles in that spirit, but the Fielding link definitively confirms that the Hundred Acre Wood isn't the first or only place in which "in which" plays a big role. (Wow, this is quite a rabbit-hole I didn't expect to explore on this blog. In fact, I'm in over my head in this sort of literary history since I don't read nearly enough, so I'll let you trace the history of "in which" as chapter heading on your own from this point.)

Anyway, the truth is that the Winnie the Pooh spirit was certainly in the air as I spun out these words, and I'm pleased about that because 1) it has a whimsical quality that reminds us we needn't take ourselves too seriously as musicians, and 2) it invites us to view a recital like this as a series of little chapters or stories. By the way, the same colleague who pointed out the Pooh connection also suggested that our next program should use Friends-style titles, as in: "The One with the Inverted Fugue Subject" or "The One where Rodolfo Sings a High C" or "The One where the Pianist's Arm Falls off" or "The One where Hindemith wrote a Sonata for _____ that Pianists Hate but that gets played a lot because there aren't so many Sonatas for _______" - whoops, getting lost down another rabbit-hole here...

So, in summary, I think this was a big success with our audience and it reinforces something I've thought for some time - that programs need to be much more elegantly and efficiently designed. For example, although I understand that the BSO's program booklets exist largely to bring in advertising money from retirement communities, I hate trying to navigate my way through to find the program notes (which are always carelessly sprawled across several pages), bios, and the lists of orchestra members. I'm not saying there's never a place for lengthy, in-depth notes (although I'm not always convinced that place is at a concert), but I really like the idea of programs where the notes are integrated right into the program listing.

Here, for example, is the way I printed our Opera Scenes program for last Spring (blogged here). The operaplot-inspired rhyming synopses aside, this layout allows the audience member to see, in one glance, the entire program; it also means that, whether one is curious about who's singing what role or about what's going on, the important information is always right there - no messy page-turns required. And you should all know that I HATE page-turns.

[Click to enlarge]

More about unwieldy BSO program booklets and unwieldy recital experiences in posts yet to come...

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