Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Performer Biographies – What's the Point?

If you go to a classical concert, it's always a toss up whether to buy a programme. If you do, you can be sure of finding out all about the music. Orchestras take their programme notes seriously, find knowledgeable writers and give them plenty of space to discuss the works being played.
What you won't discover is anything of interest about the performers. Conductors and soloists usually get a single column, containing two or three paragraphs that tell you precisely nothing about them. You'll get a list of orchestras they've worked with and the names of some of the awards they've won. You might find out they play a Strad or a Guadagnini and, if you care, you'll be told the name of their agent.
If the concert you are attending is given by a leading London orchestra, few of the other ensembles the artists has worked with are likely to be as prestigious, making the long list of orchestra names wholly redundant. Worse still, the orchestra sitting on the stage is usually present on the list, taking that redundancy into the realm of farce.
In fairness, these bios do occasionally discuss the performer's formative years, when they picked the instrument up and who they studied with. But these details can seem curiously de-contextualised when we haven't been told the performer's age, nationality, musical interests, other interests...
Obviously, a programme biography should focus on a musician's professional activities. But here is an excellent opportunity to humanise the music, to show that the musicians are real people with diverse interests and lives away from the concert platform.
Take Semyon Bychkov. He's a fascinating conductor, but he visits the UK far too rarely for audiences to know much about him. So you pick up a programme, and it might, if you're very lucky, tell you that he studied under the great Ilya Musin, but then it might not. What it certainly won't tell you is that he lives in Paris, is married to Marielle Labèque and that his younger brother was the recently deceased Yakov Kreizberg. Interesting details I'd have thought, that help us position him in classical music's constellation of international stars.
Something about the performer's relationship with the music on the programme would also be welcome, even if it was ghost-written and only approved by their agent. Without that sort of connection between performer and programme, the bio just feels like a press release.
I'm sure that diplomacy and lengthy communication would be required between orchestras, soloists and agents if we were to be offered artist bios that actually told us something. But given the time, effort and money that orchestras are willing to put into the design of the programme books, and into the programme note texts, is it too much to ask for something of equal depth and interest on the musicians whose interpretations we have come to hear?

1 comment:

  1. I too despair of the biogs in programmes. But I don’t think their aimed at us; they’re aimed at industry people who might want to employ people for something else. A one page interview would be a much better introduction to the artist.

    I’d like to see a more imaginative approach to programme notes in general, though. Opera programmes are often filled with much more contextual information which talks around the piece rather than squarely about it, which I like. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment could have done something much better for their recent concert of French music with Rattle. There was almost no clue from their programme that they were playing on period instruments (the music was Faure, Ravel and Debussy) and no discussion of the challenges they presented. Apparently the later Night Shift event included a whole discussion with Rattle and the players about the instruments and their differences, but we at 7pm got none of this and consequently had a poorer experience for it. So I’d like to see a more bespoke approach to programmes in general, and certainly artist biographies which don’t just sound like PR guff.