The rhetorical experience of live classical music audiences

NotesAs a member of the Calgary Renaissance Singers & Players, a community choir that performs European renaissance music, I have been practicing for an upcoming concert.

I recently had the opportunity to be in the audience of a performance of the music of Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven by Jane Perry, our current choir director, who played the piano alongside a cellist and clarinetist from our city’s orchestra.

This led me to some reflections on the rhetorical aspects of participating in early and classical music performances as an audience member, especially when one is also a performer of similar music from a nearby culture and era.

up close #7: having fun

a performer having fun

As a musical “rhetor,” being an audience member at a performance helps one appreciate one’s audiences as a performer, just as being a critical, appreciative reader and listener can help one appreciate one’s audiences as a writer and speaker.

Here’s the rhetorical richness I experience as an audience member of performances like these.  Many of my experiences are probably similar to those of audience members who are not performers, and they help me understand my audience and also better appreciate the local classical music community in my city.

Going to a performance gives one more than just an experience of hearing good music well performed.  The latter you can also get from listening to recordings or watching performances on television or YouTube.

Giovanni Palestrina and Pope Julius IIIThere’s an inspiring kind of cross-cultural appreciation of our common humanity that can take place when experiencing historical music in live performance. The experience of early music is enriched when the performers and directors themselves talk about the historical and cultural contexts of the music and articulate their interpretation of the unique beauties of each piece of music.  It makes you feel like history is still alive, like those composers and early performers are still living through us today.  We can more easily commune with the music’s original culture by understanding the ethos and emotions that influenced its original performances.

This is a communal and emotional component of being an audience of classical and early modern music performance.  It makes me hope that our choir’s performance can also enrich audiences with similar understanding and sense of historical connectedness.

In a live performance, we also better appreciate the passion and talents of the performers who selected, learned about and refined the historical music.  Performers infuse the music with their individual and collaborative musical talent, devotion and training.  It amazes and awes us that in our busy modern culture, some individuals and groups have devoted so much time and energy to achieving musical excellence and beauty.  This feeling is intensified as I reflect on how hard it is to integrate musical practice into my own lifestyle as a professor who also happens to be part of a community choir.

Rehearsal at La Madeleine (马德莱娜教堂)In this way, the audience is educated and inspired by the musicians’ oratory and the words in the programmes, not just the music.

As a musician, the oratory in combination with the musical artistry inspired me to practice more for our choir’s upcoming performance, and my practice time wasn’t just focused on the technical aspects but on expressing the emotions, historical flavor and meaning of the music by my tonal quality, articulation, breathing and phrasing.

At the same time as connecting us with our human history and the performers, being an audience member makes you very aware of being a member of the present era and community who is experiencing the music alongside you.

I occasionally glimpse the people around me mesmerized, swaying, smiling, and applauding and then experience my fellow concert-goers at intermission and reception.  I can’t help wondering about how each person has different motivations to attend, appreciates the music in similar or different ways than myself, and then integrates into their upcoming days or weeks of life the inspiration and memories of the concert experience.

At the post-concert reception I chatted with fellow members of my choir who attended the concert.  We compared our own reactions of experiencing the performance of our choir director in the role of the pianist alongside two fellow musicians.  I and a colleague who came together also chatted with a member of another choir she also directs in our city, and we shared some common experiences of warm-up exercises she uses for both choirs.  Performances therefore also provide a place for fellow musicians to connect within and across their various musical ensembles.

Stephen Avenue Blur

Calgary: Stephen Avenue

Being part of the audience and seeing familiar faces at various concerts over the years reminds me I am not just an isolated individual consumer of music and not just a member of one choir, but we are all a part of a diverse and thriving classical and early music community here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

I wonder what it is about this kind of music performance that fits with Calgary, that fits with a North American urban culture in general, that fills a cultural need that would otherwise go unfulfilled?  We certainly don’t get the same sort of unifying, community building experience from eating together in a shopping mall food court, taking a university course, or attending a committee meeting at work.  None of those examples of communal experience focus our attention as much on a unified rhetorical performance, none are as beautiful and inspiring, and none are as voluntary on the part of the participants.


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