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On Showmanship

February 19, 2009

In the world of classical music, showmanship is often frowned upon. People tend to think that artists who spend a lot of time working on their presentation are ones who need to make up for less talent on the musical side of things.

While it's true that many classical artists and groups these days have gotten good at matching brilliant musicianship with presentation flair, I still attend some concerts where the presentation is so mediocre that it affects my appreciation of the music.

Such, sadly, was the case a couple of evenings ago when I went to the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco to catch a program of sad love songs performed by the great English a cappella consort, The Hilliard Ensemble.

I have never before seen this vocal group live, though I have long appreciated its fine, balanced sound and peerless facility for singing very old and very new material. Officium, Hilliard's 1994 collaboration with saxophonist Jan Gabarek is one of the best and most listened to recordings in my music collection.

From a musical perspective, I still got a lot out of the program. The group has such a good blend and they captured just the right balance between sadness and rapture in such pieces as Jean Courtois' "Si Par Souffrir" and Clement Janequin's "O Mal D'Aimer". I would have rather heard the four movements of the modern Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn's rich yet desolate Four Sonnets for Four Voices sung in immediate succession rather than spliced between various airs by the 15th century French composer Philipppe Caron. The effect of bouncing backwards and forwards through time rather disrupted the flow and mood of the Kelterborn. But in general, the music was beautiful.

The group's members were a lot less successful, however, in presenting themselves. Part of the problem was the look of the stage. For acoustic reasons (I imagine) the singers were forced to sing in front of a set of ugly plasterboard panels which blocked the audience's view of the Herbst Theatre's handsome proscenium stage. The fact that the singers stood behind music stands also presented difficulties. They appeared partly masked and removed from us as a result. I would have thought that a group of this caliber would know its music from memory, quite frankly.

The singers' dress sense was all wrong too -- dour grey suits with an assortment of uninspiring charcoal colored shirts (as pictured above). They looked like a bunch of undertakers. The final straw was that the performers hardly ever cracked a smile and rarely seemed to glance at the people who'd come out in the rain and paid quite a bit of money to see them. Unsurprisingly, the applause between numbers was at best lukewarm. Sometimes, no one clapped at all.


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