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Performer Biographies Are Useless Contributions to Printed Concert Programs (There We Said It)

By John Terauds on April 24, 2023

So who reads performer biographies in concert programs — and how do they help concertgoers?

Sometimes solutions to problems sit right under our noses

The problem is making audiences comfortable with and connected to the performance of art music or opera. People talk about the concert hall being too formal, of the traditional format being forbidding. People keep talking about ways to change that — ways that mandate all sorts of complicated and expensive contortions.

But what about simple changes that don’t cost a thing?

A few words from a performer from the stage go a long way to break down barriers — a fact reinforced by comparing the friendly, chatty introductions to Toronto Symphony concerts by former conductor Peter Oundjian to the silence of the Montreal Symphony’s Kent Nagano.

Then there is the printed concert program…

…There’s been a lot of debate over what sort of descriptions should be in a program.

For one thing, we should keep descriptions of key modulations out of the text, because the 12 people in the audience who care about the key already know the details, or will discover them in their own good time.

Eyes glazing over

The next time you’re at a concert staring at the boilerplate format of lists of names and orchestras and album releases and ask yourself who benefits from this information?

Does the fact that Alex Marwohl is the principal guest conductor of the Dessau Radio Symphony affect the way she will conduct tonight’s Brahms symphony?

Does the fact that Martha Cellist graduated from Juilliard assure us of a transcendent performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto?

Aren’t these accomplishments truly meaningful to everyone else at the live performance we will hear tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday?

What about the conductor or soloist or even the associate principal viola’s life does matter to me, the listener, the person who sat through a subway line delay anxiously worrying about making it to the hall on time?

Their relationship to the composer and the work on the program, that’s what.

A matter of relevance

An artist’s statement would be a totally relevant, enlightening way to shine a light on the artist as a person, as well as personalizing the performance itself. How they feel about a piece of music and its composer is guaranteed to affect how it will sound when they present it to live ears and eyes.

Tafelmusik, which sometimes sees ways around obstacles other concert presenters don’t even notice, has been including interviews with its artists in its programs for years now and they really do help make the music-making more personal.

Opera, theatre, and ballet directors typically make a statement in the house programme to explain where they are coming from in their interpretation of a work — new or old.

Is a musical performance any different from theatre? After all, the musician has a story to tell; if the audience needs help understanding it, the effort is well-spent.

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