Who turned the lights on?

A few weeks ago I travelled to Staunton, Virginia, for the opening night of Shakespeare’s Sister, a play by my friend Emma Whipday that was being performed at the American Shakespeare Center. Since 2001 this dynamic company has made its home at the Blackfriars Playhouse, a recreation of a Jacobean indoor theatre. As part of their commitment to original staging conditions, the theatre remains lit at a constant level throughout the performance. Through this universal lighting everyone in the theatre, both performer and audience, have the chance to see each other, “breaking the wall” between actor and audience – particularly for those who take the seats available on the stage! However, the lighting also serves to amplify the communal experience of a play by heightening an audiences’ awareness of each other as fellow viewers of the drama. Though I had a number of questions prompted by the original staging conditions, in the days after the performance it was the lighting level in the theatre that struck me the most, specifically the way in which lighting might be also be a way to illumine the more complex set of behaviours and assumptions involved in the way that we watch concerts.

I still have a dim memory of being in a theatre for the first time, and though I have no recollection of what it was I watched (or rather I tend to conflate several different occasions) I do remember the thrill of that moment when the lights came down and the curtain opened. It was as if a barrier into a world that existed without my knowledge mere feet away had been broken down. As I have worked in theatres over the years I still experience something similar to that childlike thrill, perhaps even amplified because of the fact that, by working there, I get to spend my days traversing the divide between those two worlds. Maybe, though, those two worlds are more like states of reality and dreaming: an illusion reinforced by theatrical lighting. As the lights come down it is as if we fall asleep and are transported into a world in which we simultaneously immersed in the story and yet are also passive participants; there is a dreamlike intensity and timelessness to the experience of watching something on stage, and a corresponding sense of dislocation as the curtain closes and our memories of what we have just seen start to become a little hazy around the edges.

Between the fact that concert culture developed (and in many cases continues) in theatres primarily designed for plays, musical entertainments, and opera, it is unsurprising that elements of theatrical lighting have become part of the symphonic concert. Often this coalesces around a lower lighting level in the house with brighter lighting on stage, presumably serving the practical purpose of improving the audiences’ ability to focus upon the stage. I wonder, though if this might cause us to watch concerts in the same way we watch plays in the theatre or films on the cinema screen, being both transfixed by the reality of what we see, yet aware of its unreality of the act. This can be an exciting thing when watching a concert, emphasizing the other-worldliness of great music, but I wonder if this kind of theatrical illusion might also unnecessarily reinforce a kind of late-Romantic notion of concerts as sacrosanct rituals that are performed in front of an audience who sit at a distance veiled in darkness. From the performers perspective, standing on stage after a concert hearing applause yet staring into the blank of bright lights there is a way in which those on stage are also separated from the reality of an audience whose presence is, presumably, the reason for this being a concert.

Questions about how we view concerts are invariably tied up with those of architecture, be it the acoustic properties of horseshoe shaped theatres or the way a proscenium arch and curtain allows for the lighting of a specific area of the theatre. Thus it seemed fitting that whilst I was thinking through these issues that I read an article about the new Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. This adaptable, “modular hall” is designed to encourage the "thinking ear", allowing for optimal views and acoustics from an orchestra to solo instrument. Seating wraps around the performance area that sits at the lowest floor height in the room, and interlocking ellipses that appear to float above the stage create upper tiers with views directly down to the performance area. I was interested that in both a state of the art concert hall and a recreation Jacobean theatre we see a similar focus on exploring the intersection between performer and audience, promoting greater awareness in an audience, both by emphasising the synergy between sight and sound, and by combining our focus on the stage with peripheral vision of the rest of the audience. Although these two examples come from unique performance spaces, they raise broader questions about how the intersection of sight, sound, and surroundings in concert halls influences the way our audiences respond to the music that we are performing.


Two war symphonies

It’s funny how coincidence can cause you to compare two pieces that you probably never would have seen a link between otherwise. In the course of the past week I was working on the Fifth Symphony by Vaughan Williams and went to a concert that included Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. I cannot have imagined making a comparison between these two works, such vastly different worlds did I see them coming from. Yet beyond some notable similarities in texture and form (the passacaglia fourth movement of each symphony, for example) it was hard not to be intrigued by the fact that both works were premiered in 1943. Churchill had famously described late 1942 as “the end of the beginning” of the Second World War. His point was to temper celebrations of recent victories with a warning that there would be a lot more hardship for the nations at war in the coming years. Casualty reports and general privation would have been part of daily life for those people who would comprise the audiences at the premiere of each of these two symphonies in London and Moscow, and both composers were keenly aware of the significance a symphony premiered at the height of such a conflict held to speak to the national mood that year. In the gestation of each work that we see two different paths towards a similar sentiment expressed in the conclusion of each work.

Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony is rooted in his planned musical response to Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that had occupied his attentions since 1906 (coincidentally the year of Shostakovich’s birth). By 1938 Vaughan Williams seems to have abandoned hope of finishing his operatic treatment of Bunyan, and set about using some of this musical material as the basis for the Fifth Symphony. This might explain the Fifth’s apparent volte-face in symphonic style from the angular, severe tones of the Fourth Symphony (1935) back to the more serene quality of the Pastoral (Third) Symphony (1922). However, whilst the Fourth Symphony – evocative as it is of a world being consumed by the forces of totalitarianism – might seem to present a better compositional voice for a world at war, it is the Pastoral Symphony that is the true wartime symphony, deeply connected as it is with Vaughan Williams’ service on the Western Front during the First World War. Composing this piece broke Vaughan Williams’ creative dry spell following a return to civilian life in 1919, and was written alongside The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains; a scene from The Pilgrim’s Progress where the Pilgrim is ceremonially anointed ahead of his crossing the River of Death on route to the Celestial City.

I was struck by the idea that Vaughan Williams’ Fifth is not, then, a retreat to an older musical language per se, but rather the composer using a dialect derived from his experience in “the war to end all wars” from which he crafts a surprisingly sanguine, even radiant response to the contemporary experience of war in 1943. In contrast, Shostakovich’s Eight Symphony was written in a frenzied period of a little over two months in the summer of 1943 when, as he noted in an interview: “my elevated creative state…could not help but be influenced by the joyful news connected with the victories of the Red Army.” This work is not simply a bombastic paean to victory though. In the same interview he suggests that the piece: “contains many inner conflicts, both tragic and dramatic. But, on the whole, it is an optimistic, life-affirming work.” I find the Eighth a far more emotionally genuine work than the rambunctious Seventh Symphony, which to me gives a certain film-like gloss to the experience of war. In this war symphony we see the possibility of final victory – hardly surprising given the decisive battles of 1943 – presented in a voice that seems to tell of the struggle and sacrifice necessary to achieve this. It has an optimistic conclusion, but one celebrated not with shouts of joy but with sighs of relief.

Vaughan Williams – thirty-four years Shostakovich’s senior and a veteran of another global war – seems stoical in his response to conflict: war and death might be seen as further trials that the Pilgrim must face on the journey to the Celestial City, but the transcendental ending of the Fifth seems to suggest that this goal is not in doubt. The journey through Shostakovich’s Eighth is more tumultuous, but the radiant splendour of the final C major string chord chimes a similarly optimistic note. In Shostakovich’s description of the symphony: “Everything that is dark and gloomy will rot away, vanish, and the beautiful will triumph.” Since both composers produced music for propaganda films during the war we have a clear touchstone for their bombastic, victorious musical language. I find it compelling that in the large public statement of a symphony both seem to find a private space for a cautiously optimistic view of a future beyond the present struggles of war. I wondered if, by 1943, both composers reflected the feeling that “the beginning of the end” might have been on the horizon. 

Back to basics

I once had a conducting teacher who would often tell me about a friend of his who went to study with the great Italian maestro Franco Ferrara. During the years that he spent as Ferrara’s student this conductor worked continuously on only six different scores. My teacher would always wonder aloud what those six scores might have been. I’ve no idea if this was Ferrara’s teaching method, and it always slightly amused me that for all the frequent retelling of this story my teacher never thought to contact his friend to seek an answer to his question. Regardless of whether this was the way that Ferrara taught, though, there’s a lot of sense in such an approach. All conductors, I think, live with the constant knowledge that there are more pieces out there than we could possible learn in a lifetime. Working with a view to be constantly adding to our repertoire can, I think, make us neglectful of the lessons that pieces that we already know can continue to teach us. Stripping things back to those fundamental lessons contained in a few pieces might give us the kind of laser-like focus that we need to bring to our technical study.

Though the makeup of Ferrara’s six scores might by mystery, I imagine that almost anyone who has been a teacher or pupil of conducting could give you a fairly good rundown of the pieces they have or continue to use in a similar way. Often these are also the kinds of pieces that one might encounter in an audition or competition, since they are effective indicators of mastery of various technical skills. Off the top of my head I would come up with a list like “E Susanna non vien” from Figaro, the opening of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Strauss’ Fledermaus overture, the first movement of Brahms’ Third Symphony, Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and the Danse sacrale from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. All have fine examples of the sort of knotty technical problems that conductors need to be able to overcome. I think there is a risk, though, that the pedagogical potential of these pieces can end up doing them something of a disservice. I’m sure I’m not alone in having been driven mad by the constant repetition of a piece in a teaching setting. I also wonder if the focus on certain pieces as teaching tools ends up running the risk of producing a Pavlovian response, with clinical conducting that masters the technical challenges but dulls the shine of brilliance that this masterpiece might otherwise bear.   

If we were instrumentalists then our daily diet would include both the repertoire we are working on, and the technical exercises that are a vital ingredient of disciplined practice. A violinist does not perfect their double stopping by playing the Sibelius concerto, yet all too often we as conductors seek to address far more fundamental technical issues through similarly precocious repertoire. That begs the question, though, what are the etudes for conductors? I should say here that I have extreme reservations about technical conducting exercises, particularly those that are designed to be performed in silence. Imagine practicing cutting an onion without the vegetable in front of you. The exercise would be pointless: the application of the skill – chopping an onion – is only possible when the two contingent elements – knife and onion – are present. A conductor’s gesture is the expression of sound in physical motion: without sound it is choreography.

The work that can be done in silence is, to my mind, contemplative. Blessed with the ability to watch video footage of our conducting we can consider in minute detail that relationship between gesture and sound, seeking to bridge the gulf between what has and what can be achieved. Though this is possible with any piece of music, with those works that are so completely within our knowledge that the remembrance of them is second nature we have an ideal yardstick with which to closely monitor our own development and progress, free from the distractions of the unfamiliar. Here we can find ways to improve, and to decide when our “improvements” detract from the result. If the goal of musical study is to mingle of our mastery in technique and interpretation, then it stands to reason that the results will be most visible in those pieces where equal creativity is required of us to develop both these strands of our craft. Sometimes it’s only when we revisit something at the base of our repertoire that we have the chance to address the basics of our conducting.