A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

"It's OK to Talk!"

A few days ago a friend shared an article from Gramophone. Rebecca Hutter discusses her recent experience at “MusicUpClose” a classical series that allows the (rather small) audience to sit close to the performers and observe in a way not possible given the seating in the standare concert hall. At the conclusion of a piece the conductor offered comments, then facilitated an audience Q & A.  Hutter reports that audience members were eager to inquire and to remark on a broad range of topics about the composition, the instruments, the acoustics, and their own emotional response. She noted that often the only way to learn anything about concert repertoire is to read the program notes. As a musician I’m aware that such notes are often geared to those who already know a good bit about composers, style, performance practices, etc. and may not answer the kinds of basic questions that some audience members might have – in other words, “if you have to ask, maybe this music isn’t for you.” That may be a harsh assessment, but the performance organization looking to attract a newer, younger, fresh audience should be careful about what kind of assumptions it makes and should be eager to educate that potential audience.

While the idea of interactive concerts is new to the classical scene, and certainly would not be appropriate in every case, more and more orchestral, chamber, and operatic enterprises are experimenting with such experiences with their audiences. Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Beyond the Score” offers multi-media background explanations of the pieces chosen for the series. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s offers pre-opera lectures. Lyric has also engaged with the social, political, and cultural aspects of some of their productions, including John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, an opera about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project (what were the long-term effects of the Project on the people who participated, as well as on the world going forward); and Jerome Kern’s Showboat (how the performers responded to the show’s treatment of the difficult issues of racial segregation and inequality in their historical context). (Lyric has also recently partnered with The Second City comedy troupe to engage a larger audience, but that’s a subject for another time.)
Hutter isn’t attempting to draw conclusions about whether discussions during a concert are “right or wrong, or helpful or unhelpful”. I don’t think anyone wants to see an audience member or conductor interrupt a piece in the middle for a comment (“wasn’t that a great use of the chromatic medient!?”), but the format of the concert she attended seems ideal: present the piece uninterrupted, then allow time for reflection and response after.
And that has me wondering, as a priest, preacher, and liturgical leader: what can we in the church learn from this approach? I sometimes present interactive sermons, posing questions and asking for opinions and reflection on the scriptural text. I’ve asked people to study the text ahead of time, and sometimes even posed pre-Sunday reflection questions. It’s not that I don’t respect the authority of the pulpit, or the fact that some people really want a fully scripted, formal sermon (and for good or ill that’s what they get, more often than not) but hearing from the congregation can be a good thing for all concerned. I also do an instructed Eucharist (in which the communion service is punctuated in appropriate places by theological and liturgical explanations) each year, and I have always relied on a script that is read (by me or someone else). Never once have I asked for questions from the congregation. Well, duh! That’s going to change this year.
So what do you think about interactive, instructional concerts and/or liturgies? Is it appropriate for the concert hall, or the nave, to become a classroom on occasion? What’s your experience? Please share!

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