Visual Aids - A Rant

15 October 2014

The concert season has started, and New Yorkers have had, or will have, opportunities to attend the following:

Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion,” staged by Peter Sellars.

Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” staged by puppeteer Basil Twist.

Schubert’s “Winterreise,” staged by artist and director William Kentridge.

I see this as a trend, and I’m trying to decide what I think about it.

On the one hand, this represents full employment for artists of all sorts, in addition to musicians, and that should be considered a good thing.

On the other hand, I’m disturbed by the implication that audiences today don’t listen so well anymore, and actually need all this visual window dressing in order to appreciate music.

Actually, let’s take “The Rite of Spring” out of the discussion; That piece started out as a ballet, so it was meant to coexist with décor, costumes, and dancing.

That leaves us with the Bach and the Schubert. Both pieces use music and text to tell stories. Neither piece was intended for the theater stage. Both pieces are extremely dramatic on their own; they don’t need no stinkin’ scenery or costumes. Any good performance of these works should evoke vivid imagery in the mind of the listener, assuming the listener has an imagination and the power to use it.

I remember many years ago I took my young son to a children’s concert, and the program included Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” There was a small orchestra, a narrator, and a mime troupe, acting out the story. The use of the mime troupe goes against the composer’s wishes. Here’s what Prokofiev himself had to say:

Before the start of the performance, the instruments were shown to the children, and the themes were played on them; during the performance the children heard the themes repeatedly, and learned to differentiate the timbres of the instruments — herein lay the educational purpose of the piece. … what was important to me was not to tell a story, but to have the children listen to the music, for which the story was merely a pretext.
— taken from the Foreward to Four Orchestral Works by Sergei Prokofiev, Dover Edition

If we give our children visual crutches like this, instead of letting them develop their innate abilities to listen attentively and use their imaginations, they will continue to expect such crutches when they become adults.

What a world, what a world…