Music Talk

Bactrian camelFor as long as I can remember being aware of lectures, I have been familiar also with that strange, half-camel, half-unicorn known as the ‘lecture recital.’ It’s a funny old thing. In principle, it should be the most straightforward pairing in the world: you want to play or sing some music, and you want to talk about it as well. Why should that be difficult? And yet it seems to be remarkably tough to find a way to do these two things with equal skill, and in the right proportions to make it all work. You’re aiming for the unicorn, obviously: that perfect blend which creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts, the talk naturally and effortlessly enhancing the experience of the live performance. But I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples where we find ourselves, after much agonising and discussing on the part of the people presenting, staring straight at a horse designed by committee instead.

It’s also a form of presentation that can suffer from identity crisis simply by dint of location. At academic conferences, lecture recitals are often scheduled at lunchtimes – thus rendering them not an ‘official’ slot in the programme, and also somehow conveying that they are entertainment rather than serious scholarship. This is of course detrimental to everyone involved, since performance research most definitely is serious scholarship, and needs taking seriously; and yet because they take more time than just having a single person standing at the front with a script and a PowerPoint, they can be a problem to schedule into the main sessions… which is why they end up over lunchtime. At concert venues, lecture recitals are sometimes viewed as being too dry, too austere for a proper evening slot, and so end up being scheduled at lunchtimes, or in the early afternoon, so as not to disrupt the main pattern of evening events. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

So it was a particular joy to attend a lecture recital last week which was given as an evening event at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, without apology or awkwardness. This was Haydn’s London Ladies, a ‘narrated recital’ by mezzo Clare McCaldin and pianist Paul Turner which traced the connection between the composer and five women with whom he enjoyed professional (and also, in some cases, personal) relationships during his visits to Britain in the 1790s. The music was mostly but not exclusively by Haydn himself: Harriet Abrams was also represented, a professional singer and composer who also set the words of another of these ladies, Anne Hunter. Piano solos were sprinkled among the vocal works, and the whole was knitted together with extracts from letters and diaries, and explanations of the various meetings and connections between these women and Haydn. Judging by the audience’s reaction, it was an event thoroughly enjoyed by all – not least in the consummate drama and virtuosity of McAldin’s rendition of Arianna a Naxos in the second half of the evening.

There are perhaps a few finishing touches to polish this particular unicorn to perfection (I wasn’t entirely comfortable, for example, with the fact that two of the three piano solos featured further narration on top of the music, rather than allowing us to listen to this music as we were able to listen to the vocal works). But it is a powerful example of what a clever combination of words and music can achieve, and the insights such an event can provide. And, more than this, it was an experience which caused me to scribble a number of frantic notes about the overlap between public speaking and drama. Indeed, as I chalk up an ever-increasing number of concert introductions, I find myself wanting to read poetry, inflect recitations ‘dramatically’, and generally view the whole procedure as something with an important aspect of theatre to it. Breaking the fourth wall is quite often the aim of speaking to your audience, and that is, in and of itself, a powerful thing to do. But that doesn’t mean throwing the theatrical entirely into the bin – even, I would venture, in an academic environment. (As so beautifully demonstrated by Iain Burnside and a group of Guildhall students and alumni at the RMA’s Annual Conference earlier this month.) If you are discussing the structure or practical approach to performing a given work before you play it to the assembled company at an academic conference, you may be less likely to want to read poetry than you would at a words/music event at your local concert hall… but that doesn’t exempt you from wanting to conjure silence before you play, or perhaps even leading your listeners into a particular frame of mind before your fingers first strike the keys. Musicology is a form treated by those of us who are involved with it as a ‘science’ of sorts – still, that doesn’t mean an absence of poetry (literally or metaphorically speaking). Perhaps we can all benefit from thinking a little more about ‘stage presence’ in this curious, camel-like form in which we can see so much potential, but which is so tricky to unlock… and thereby find a more likely route to the place where the unicorns live.

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