What happens when the concert hall turns into a chat room, asks Stephen Prins   To return to the world of classical music concerts in Colombo, as played out in vintage venues like the Lionel Wendt Memorial Theatre and the CMS Ladies’ College Hall, after a break of more than two decades is like waking [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Talking to concert audiences


What happens when the concert hall turns into a chat room, asks Stephen Prins  

To return to the world of classical music concerts in Colombo, as played out in vintage venues like the Lionel Wendt Memorial Theatre and the CMS Ladies’ College Hall, after a break of more than two decades is like waking up after a long fairytale sleep. Veteran concert-goers of the 60s and 70s are gone, or they are still around but looking rather different, or they are there with their children, grooming a new generation of serious-minded concert-goers.

Vladimir de Pachmann

One striking feature about concerts in Colombo today, we noted, is the general absence of the concert programme. In a previous era, a concert never felt complete until you had in your hand that crisp, smart concert accessory – a four-to-six page overview of the music and the musicians. Indeed, the concert programme was more than just an accessory, it was a necessity. We are talking about pre-airconditioner days when you sweated out a concert with the performers. Unlike the musicians, you could fan yourself with a cardboard-cover programme until the musicians had played their last encore and you had squeezed the last drops from your evening’s entertainment.

The doing away of the concert programme makes environmental sense. You don’t cut down trees to print 500 programmes that will be left behind in the concert hall. Instead of a programme, you now have the spoken introduction. The musicians talk about the works they will perform. Sometimes an impresario will do the honours. A short speech is followed by music. If the speeches turn expansive, you have something between a recital and a chat show.

Chatting is fine. It narrows the gap between performer and listener. It “breaks the ice”, bonds audience and artist. The atmosphere becomes familiar, almost like family. (In Sri Lanka, for better or worse, just about everything is like family.)
Some months ago a group of Sri Lankan musicians presented a chamber music evening titled Tête-à-Tête. True to title, there was intimate “conversation.” The artists introduced one another, the music they would perform, and their personal relationship with the music. All of it was interesting and relevant. It was very much like family.

On occasion, at concerts with spoken introductions, there have been moments when you sensed the audience would like the musicians to get on with it. A word too many can seem like cozying up to your listeners. Familiarity from the stage isn’t always appropriate. Western classical music is meant to be serious stuff.

The Sri Lanka-born musician and music critic Elmer de Haan (1906-1979) deplored any kind of “talk” from the stage. He even disapproved of soloists announcing the encores they played at the end of a recital. The atmosphere of a classical music concert is sacred and talk is irreverent, de Haan insisted; the only voices permissible in a recital hall are those of the music instruments. A classical music event should carry a necessary tension, generated by performer-audience expectations and the power and beauty that only serious music commands. One spoken word is sufficient to snap the precious silver thread of that all-important suspense and tension, music purist de Haan contended.

The silence of high expectation before the musicians begin to perform, the silence between movements, and the silence between the applause and the next item on the programme – all this is part of the thrill of the concert hall experience.
Of course, occasional levity in spoken form is not unwelcome, especially when the music is meant to be entertaining and witty.

Not long ago, the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka, under a German conductor, performed Igor Stravinsky’s playful 1942 “Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant.” The work – a collaboration between choreographer George Balanchine, America’s famous Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the great Russian composer – was written for 50 elephants and 50 ballerinas and was premiered in New York in April 1942, just over 70 years ago. Balanchine commissioned the work in a telephone call he made to Stravinsky. That call has gone on record in the annals of classical music. The surreal conversation was enacted on stage, complete with ringing phone, by the German conductor and orchestra player Eshantha Peiris respectively role-playing Stravinsky and Balanchine.

Balanchine (Peiris): “I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me.”
Stravinsky (German conductor): “For whom?”
B: “For some elephants.”
S: “How old are the elephants?”
B: “Very young.”
S: “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.”
That was a delightful spoken interlude, nicely hammed up, in a concert that included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
What happens when a truly great artist is in the habit of talking from the stage?

Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933) was an eccentric German-Russian pianist who habitually spoke to his audience. He would turn to the house and talk about music, himself and fellow musicians. He sometimes muttered and made faces. The bemused audience put up with the pianist’s bizarre on-stage behaviour because they were in the presence of one of the great interpreters of Chopin.

Long years ago, according to the late Oscar Dender, a Ceylonese musician who had his own band of musicians, a famous concert pianist by the name of “Waldemar de Pachmann” gave a recital at the old Empire Theatre in Colombo 2. This must have been in the 1920s. “Pachmann turned and talked to us in the audience,” recalled an amused Mr. Dender, who, like Elmer de Haan, enjoyed a chat and a bit of eccentricity.

Eshantha Peiris as Balanchine calls Stravinsky about an “elephant ballet”

Like Mr. de Haan, Mr. Dender was a regular visitor at our home in the 60s and 70s. We picked up interesting odds and ends of local history, family histories and music lore from these two gifted and remarkable gentlemen. Both were tall, with silver heads of hair and silver beards. Oscar Dender was mild and soft-spoken, while Elmer de Haan was fiery and loud, almost deafening. Mr. Dender visited during the day and Mr. de Haan called at night. Both were great raconteurs. They spent hours chatting with Deryk Prins, and if we happened to be in the room, we invariably picked up little gems, like the Vladimir de Pachmann anecdote.

A skimming search of the Internet revealed no references to Vladimir de Pachmann the pianist making concert tours of Asia in the early years of the 20th century. But Mr. Dender was not the type of person to give out wrong information. The Sri Lanka archives may confirm that the great interpreter of Chopin did indeed give a recital in Colombo in the 20s. Vladimir de Pachmann was married to an Australian pianist, Maggie Okey, and, like so many celebrities of yore, the couple may well have stopped in Colombo long enough to give a concert before continuing on their travels, aboard a P&O liner, to or from Australia and the Far East.

If Oscar Dender attended a recital by Vladimir de Pachmann at the old Empire Theatre, you can be sure that Elmer de Haan was also present in the audience that evening. Mr. de Haan, who revered the old school of pianists, would have happily accepted anything from de Pachmann – music, words, oddities and all.

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