So why don’t concert organisers pay attention to detail?

It seems like an odd thing to say since we are still only in March, but the recent concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra are likely to be the highlights of the year.

The authoritative British magazine, The Gramophone, regarded by many as the Bible of western classical music, recently placed the LSO in the top five orchestra of the world. The two concerts at the NCPA showed us why. The sound produced by the orchestra was rich and beautifully textured. Each player in its woodwind and brass sections played his or her solo pieces with precision and a superior musicality, yet they all came together as a wonderful ensemble. And yes, when they needed to be loud, as in Mahler’s Symphony No 1 or Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, they were shattering! As for the strings, the heart and soul of an orchestra, they produced a sonorous and gorgeous sound, with an elegant depth to it. In short, I was bowled over. Who wasn’t?

I suppose those who don’t care too much about Elgar. And as I found on the opening day, there are plenty of those. This quintessentially British composer wrote his cello concerto just after World War I, and it has an undoubted elegiac air about it, as if pining for a world irrevocably lost. Elgar apparently never ‘explained’ his mood or motivation for the work, so it is for commentators to guess what inspired the composer.

The inspiration behind Mahler’s Symphony No 1 is said to have been his failed love affair with the singer Johanna Richter, and there is enough doom and gloom in it, but that is so in most of Mahler’s work. But — again as in most of Mahler’s work — there are beautiful melodies as well, and some startling interventions from the clarinet, trumpet and cor anglais. No wonder Mahler said, “I would like it stressed that the symphony is greater than the love affair it is based on. The real affair became the reason for — but by no means the true meaning of — the work.”

This leads us to the question why promoters and organisers of orchestral concerts do not try hard enough to connect with the audience. This isn’t just in India: I have attended concerts in London, Vienna, New York, Chicago and other places. Typically what happens is this: you buy a programme (usually for an exorbitant amount), and use it primarily to know what pieces are being played that evening and in what order. Later, when you are home, you might read the programme notes and learn about Mahler’s doomed affair, or about why Stravinsky’s Petrushka (performed by the LSO on the second day) sounds so balletic. It was written for the ballet, and is the story of a puppet of wood and strings, which is suddenly imbued with human feelings, with tragic consequences. Now it is assumed we know this; and indeed, some of us do. But lot of us don’t either. Wouldn’t our enjoyment — and understanding — of the music be enhanced if we did know the background, the story, what had inspired the composer and things like that?

Recently, the Symphony Orchestra of India’s resident conductor Zane Dalal has been attempting just that, and I must say it’s a welcome addition to the programme. No one is asking for an explanation of the music, the work or its details — that would be condescending. What you want is information about the background and the context in which a composition is located. This information can only increase your delight when you attend performances as extraordinary 0as the LSO’s two concerts.

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