I’m always going to see classical concerts, so last night, I unexpected myself with a trip to see Elton John and Billy Joel at San Jose’s HP Pavilion. I’ve never thought of myself as a fan of Elton’s music, and I barely know who Billy Joel is, so I didn’t have high hopes.

It was awesome.

Elton and Billy each made an entrance to theme music, like this was pro-wrestling or something.

Elton was in tails with his name appliqued in pink on the lapels, Billy in a black suit.

They started with a piano duet, and then Elton’s band appeared on hydraulic stage risers. They all have long hair. They all had wind machines to keep it moving. When Billy started to sing, his band appeared out of holes in the stage. Not so much with the hair and the wind machines, there, but still – quite an entrance.

There were no lights on people who weren’t doing anything.

There were 10,000 people in the audience. Only about 50 of us were close enough to see a keyboard – but not to worry. There was a massive LED curtain screen above the stage so that everybody else could see close-ups of singers, keyboards and anything else that might be going on.

I’m not saying that we should throw the baby out with the bath water and encourage Jean-Yves Thibaudet to straddle his piano stool and salute the balcony with one hand while he clumsily knocks out a mediocre and derivative pseudo-blues piano solo with the other, but seriously – when did we become too cool for a bit of showmanship?

If we weren’t afraid of pissing off the snobbiest of our number, we could at least:

1) Revisit the informal shambles of the orchestra’s entrance and the rigid formality of the conductor’s walk on

2) Use creative lighting to guide the eye toward stuff that was actually happening on stage

3) Have the brass and percussion make a bit more of an entrance after the concerto with the help of all those hydraulic stage risers that otherwise sit inert and unimaginative for the entire show

4) Project a view of the piano keyboard on a screen for the benefit of all the people in the cheap seats and half the people in the expensive ones

5) Put a wind machine in front of Gustavo Dudamel. Not just on stage, but during season announcements too.

The Elton/Billy gravy train takes 12 trucks and a crew of 150 people to tour, but most of these suggestions would be relatively inexpensive, using stuff that already exists in big classical venues and could be implemented without undue impact on the way people play. Really, the only reason not to is because we think we’re too classy to put on a show. How’s that all hopey no changey stuff workin’ out for ya so far?




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  1. February 17, 2010

    I have long advocated to anyone who will listen (both of them) that pianists should ride the hydraulic lift up from below the stage with the piano, to disco music. It did happen to Grainger’s Handel in the Strand with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra (to Grainger, not disco), but I doubt I will live to see the day when a Major Symphonical Organization will utilize it. People would die.

  2. oaeblog #
    February 20, 2010

    Hi, Will here from the OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment). You might like to take a look at the pics from our recent Night Shift concert here – we’ve being doing some of the things you mention.

    The Night Shift at the Roundhouse: 29 January 2010 © Joe Plommer
  3. properdiscord #
    March 11, 2010

    There’s a comment on this piece here which doesn’t contain much in the way of coherent argument.

    The central premise of his point seems to be that showmanship is either the opposite of musicianship, or at least inversely proportional to it.

    The author seems to have missed that I suggest adding elements to the performance that do not detract from the music being played, but rather compliment it by making it easier to see what is going on.

    If showmanship is indeed the antithesis of good music, perhaps he would advocate getting rid of some of the existing showy conventions, or going so far as turning the lights off altogether so that the audience isn’t distracted by the sight of all those instruments.*

    Finally, AC Douglas (if you’re reading this) I’d like to draw your attention to this where you’ll learn that attacking the foundations of an argument is substantially different to undermining a similar but fundamentally different position.

    You also might want to read this where you’ll learn all about how calling me stupid isn’t an argument at all.

    *Oh snap. That’s called “Reductio ad absurdum” where a proposition is refuted by demonstrating that it has ridiculous consequences.

    You wanna tell me I’m wrong? Be my guest, but you’d better bring it, otherwise it won’t be me that ends up looking stupid.

    • March 11, 2010

      Have you never heard the famous Clinton era line, “It’s about the economy, stupid!”? It was that I was paraphrasing, not hurling ad hominem insults your way.

      And as for a refuting argument, read my post again without that chip on your shoulder getting in the way of your comprehension. Showmanship is NOT “either the opposite of musicianship, or at least inversely proportional to it.” It’s precisely what I declared it to be as part of a classical music concert: a distraction.


      • properdiscord #
        March 11, 2010

        You want no showmanship, or just the amount that you’re comfortable with?

        You’re using absolutes to argue for the middle of a continuum. We’re used to suits, applause, the occasional “BRAVA!”, a standing ovation on a good night, stage lighting, over-hyped conductors making the big entrance and a look of concentrated solemnity on the part of the orchestra. They don’t look at their watches during cadenzas. Let’s not pretend this is not showmanship. It doesn’t distract. It’s part of the atmosphere. There are times when we could use a little more of it.

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