David Lister: It's the way he tells it

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last Tuesday I think I saw the future. At least, I hope I did. In a sensational evening at the Royal Festival Hall, I watched Daniel Barenboim play Beethoven's third piano concerto and conduct Schoenberg's notoriously difficult Variations for Orchestra Op 31. That in itself was stunningly good, but it was the third element of the evening that turned it into a sensation.

Before conducting the Schoenberg piece, Barenboim gave what was described as an "illustrated talk" from the podium, introduced the various themes from sections of the orchestra, explained how they fitted together and how the motifs were subtly altered and repeated. This prelude to a 21-minute piece lasted nearly half an hour. The audience was rapt, partly because this was a master showman at work, with a sense of comedy and timing to be envied by many a stand-up comedian. By the end of the talk he had the audience, not quite whistling Schoenberg as he had promised, but at least learning to love him, which is quite an achievement.

But Barenboim's charisma was only part of the reason that the audience was rapt. I also think it was because it was a treat to be addressed at all by a conductor at a classical music concert. It made the occasion memorable. Why does it not happen more often? Conductors are some of the greatest personalities in the world of music, and by virtue of what they have to do with an orchestra, some of the greatest communicators, yet we never hear them speak or even see their faces. Would not a brief talk about the music enliven a concert and help to bring in that much needed "new audience"?

Some might argue that Schoenberg is a special case as an especially difficult composer, and thus demands verbal explication. But I would respond that for a first-time concert-goer, Beethoven might be equally difficult. And even the most experienced concert-goers would surely welcome hearing a conductor's personal thoughts on the music he is about to conduct.

I'd certainly applaud such a development. In fact, I'd go further. As I say, we never at a classical music concert see a conductor's face. Much of the classical music world will be appalled at this suggestion, but would it be so terrible to have a screen above the orchestra so that one could see the facial expressions of the conductor, his or her glances at various sections of the orchestra, rather than just staring at a back all evening? Again, I think this would be of enormous benefit in refreshing the audience with a new and younger element, an element perhaps brought up on rock concerts.

Rock and classical did actually come together this week at another venue. At London's Roundhouse a new form of classical concert was tried out, with rock bands playing in the foyer before the classical concert, the audience allowed to take in drinks, the artists talking to the audience. The celebrated Vladimir Jurowski conducted; the vast majority of the audience was under 30 and there were queues down the street for tickets.

The future must lie in both what was happening at the Roundhouse and what Barenboim was doing at the Royal Festival Hall. Before he spoke to us, Barenboim joked: "I am not going to talk for long because I don't want you to tell friends tomorrow 'I heard Daniel Barenboim last night' and for them to reply 'Really, what did he say?'." It's a good joke, but actually it's great to be able to tell people not just how he played but also what he said.

Don't judge a book ...

Roman Polanski's new film The Ghost, based on Robert Harris's book, has its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival next week, before opening in the UK in March. Film-goers should look very closely at copies of the book waved around in the movie. Fake covers were created by the studio's art department for the ghostwritten biography of the fictional Prime Minister. It is what is beneath the fake covers that shows that there is a joker in the studio's art department.

Under every book in the film bearing the cover Adam Lang, My Life is a copy of The Blair Years: The Alastair Campbell Diaries. I'm not sure it would bring a smile to Roman Polanski's face at the moment. But Alastair Campbell will no doubt beam with pride at the thought of a few extra sales when he learns of it.

They should nod off

The Oscar nominations were announced this week, and for the first time the Best Picture category had 10 nominations rather than the usual five. Lobbying by the studios, who can make more money with the words "Oscar-nominated" next to a film title, seems to have paid off. It devalues the award. A nomination for the top award should be a real pinnacle for film-makers. Suddenly, it's only half as difficult to achieve this.

Yet it's a much smaller matter that really irked me in the Oscar reports this week. I kept on reading about various movies, actors and actresses who had received Oscar "nods". The wonderful Carey Mulligan received a "nod", for example, for her role in An Education. It's only in the past few years that this daft little word has crept over the Atlantic. It's part of the Hollywood-speak that also sees directors as "helmers". Nomination may be a longer word than nod and perhaps trickier when it comes to a headline. But that's no reason to lose it from the film lexicon. Nod should be banned.