On August 7th I attended a Chamberfest concert featuring the Cheng² Duo, entitled Around the World. The auditorium of the National Gallery was full to capacity (about 400 people there). The idea, which I liked, was to "take us on a whirlwind musical tour of the Americas, Europe, and the Far East" with the young musicians (Bryan Cheng, the younger sibling, only 16, plays an 18th century instrument) performing short items by composers from all those different places, and the aim of this afternoon concert was to sell the notion of classical music to people who may not have been exposed to it before. Their programme was
Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang [i.e. an arrangement of the Ständchen from that song cycle]
Pablo de Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20, No. 1
Jules Massenet: Meditation from Thais
Astor Piazzolla: Libertango (arr. Cheng² Duo)
George Gershwin: Prelude No. 1 in B-flat Major (arr. Heifetz)
Huang Hai Huai: Horse Race (arr. Cheng² Duo)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Andante Cantabile from String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 (arr. Fitzenhagen)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 4 for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 102, No. 1
Most of the audience consisted of people who didn't need the soft sell, but in order to make the listening more palatable for any new concertgoers, the production team had gone to a lot of trouble to add visual aids in the form of slides and videos projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage while the music was being played. I have seen this sort of thing done before, but not to such an extent. At one point we watched a short documentary video about Mongolian horse-head fiddle music. We saw maps of where the composer and his ideas came from, then short programme notes about the composition were superimposed upon a series of associated pictures and video clips. The trouble is, everyone's associations with any particular piece of music are different, When I hear Ständchen from Schubert's Schwanengesang, for example, I don't visualise the Schönbrunn palace of Vienna, even though the piece was originally composed in that city. (I imagine a Romeo strumming a guitar beneath a Juliet's balcony.) The video clips of tango dancers were fun but didn't synchronise with Piazzolla's rhythms. Had we had only the music to listen to and only the musicians to watch, we could surely have imagined the dance without assistance.
Silvie Cheng, the very self possessed elder sibling who plays the piano accompaniments, must have been aware of people's varying reactions to the presentation because at one point she came to the microphone and advised us to close our eyes if we found the background pictures distracting ... or to look at the handsome performers instead!
"Distracting" is an understatement. I admit I found the words and pictures interesting––compelling, even––but is the concert hall the right place for them? While I looked, I couldn't concentrate on the music at all. It felt to me as if the sights and sounds were trying to reach different parts of my brain, and my brain couldn't cope. I wonder if the rest of the audience felt the same. The first seven items on the programme were really "encore pieces" strung together so that people could have a variety of tasters, as Silvie explained. To me, it seemed a great relief when we reached the last item, the Beethoven Sonata, and were told that this longer, more complex one would be played without any additional pictures. At last I could immerse myself in pure music. The Chengs performed the Beethoven extremely well. I can't judge how well they performed in the rest of the concert because I wasn't really listening. I hadn't been watching them, either.
Food for thought here. Perhaps I'm just a music snob who finds easy listening difficult. Perhaps I responded negatively to the visuals because I'd spent the first part of the day at my computer screen and wanted an escape from flashy images that afternoon, which I didn't get. Younger generations may be so addicted to their screens that they don't want a respite, although I feel they should! I do believe that this constant, unnatural bombardment of the eye is a bad thing and explains young people's lack of ability to concentrate at school. And when they hear rock music, they associate it with a disjointed video or with bright, flashing lights, so that the musical part of their brains cannot be fully engaged. Perhaps if it were, they wouldn't be able to endure the repetitive beat and monotonous noise any more than I can, but that's another subject for debate.