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Program Confusions

May 8, 2007

Does it matter if a concert program says one thing and the performers perform another?

A few days ago, I went to hear a choral concert by the Artists Vocal Ensemble (AVE), a great professional singing group that specializes in performing the sacred repertoire of the Renaissance and Medieval periods.

If it weren't for the fact that I was reviewing the concert for San Francisco Classical Voice, I don't think I would have guessed that the group had decided to substitute in different movements or even completely different pieces to those listed in the program. I don't pretend to be an expert on early church music (the secular music of the period is more my thing) but I was keen to hear this group perform, which is why I accepted the commission. But it was only through the process of writing the piece that it became apparent to me that the audience was being misled in its attempt to match the works listed in the program notes to the singing going on up on stage.

In one sense, I suppose the name of a piece of music or its composer don't matter all that much. Not knowing these things doesn't necessarily detract from our appreciation of the music. On the other hand, the group's inability to even indicate that the program had changed shows a remarkable disrespect for the audience. At the very least, someone should have notified us at the start of the performance. What if I'd enjoyed the music so much that I went out and bought recordings of the works, only to find that they were not the same ones that I had heard in concert? Also, knowing some basic facts about a piece of music helps anchor it in the listener's mind, helps get us ready to listen.

I hope AVE doesn't slip up in this way again. It's a shame, because they gave such a mesmerizing concert.



  • I'm a singer with AVE, and want to thank you for your wonderful review in SFCV. I was particularly pleased with your emphasis on the feelings evoked by the performance, and on your thoughtful analysis of using art as a means to bring about social change. We in AVE have been discussing this amongst ourselves.

    I wish that I had the program in front of me, but I would like to apologize for whatever confusion you encountered when trying to follow the program.

    As far as omitting this and that, we did cut some of the verses out of the Sheppard "in media vita" in the interest of time. As far as the Lobo Requiem, we only left out one movement (the communion) from the edition which we worked from, also in interest of time. I cannot remember if Lobo's communion setting was listed in the program.

    I am not an expert in church music, myself, but know that in the actual context of a liturgy, the music can be truncated (and even altered) to suit. There is nothing wrong with substituting plainchant for polyphony. There was nothing wrong with dropping the last few verses of a psalm or hymn at the spur of the moment. The music, while beautiful, was fundamentally functional, and served the text. This can lend a wonderful spontaneity to its performance that you would not fine otherwise in the confines of the Symphony Hall.

    Whether or not this is acceptable in performance outside of the liturgy is up for debate. In my opinion, there is an inherent challenge in presenting sacred music outside of the liturgy (but it is a challenge well worth facing). Modern musicians and appreciators are reclaiming this music for greater aesthetic and spiritual purposes. Can we take what we want from it? DO we put it on the same pedestal as "art" music?

    Again, I do not have the program in front of me, so I cannot judge for myself where the texts strayed from those sung by the group. As far as I know, every composer was attributed in the program.

    I'll look into this later, when I get a chance.

    By Blogger Celeste Winant, At May 10, 2007 at 1:29 PM  

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