Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Good concert is more than music to your ears

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What makes a concert special for you? Is it the choice of music -- perhaps a favourite piece or something you've never heard before and are thrilled to discover?

Some people select concerts based on the soloist. They want an opportunity to witness in person an artist they've heard in recordings or on the radio.

But once you take your seat at a concert venue, what is it about the performance that makes you really enjoy the experience?

As a concert reviewer, I have my own set of criteria -- and I'll admit to being pretty particular. It comes with the territory, but in this case, it's also a personality trait.

It begins with the concert itself starting on time. Notwithstanding unforeseen circumstances, if the ticket says the show starts at 8 p.m., it should start at 8 p.m. This takes into account that shows often begin with introductory remarks, pushing the actual start time later.

Speaking of opening remarks, everyone appreciates if these are kept brief. Some organizations have committed to acknowledging sponsors at the start of their concerts -- understandably necessary, but for subscribers or regular attendees, repeated messages about subscriptions, donations and details about upcoming performances, raffles and fundraisers can be tiresome.

Much preferred are interesting facts about the music about to be played. David Moroz of the Winnipeg Chamber Music Society is a master at delivering succinct and engaging commentary on the repertoire the ensemble is playing, providing a little history and some things for which to listen. It adds to the enjoyment of the concert without being overwhelming. His pleasant manner sets the mood and fills the audience with anticipation.

Once the concert begins, the demeanour of the musicians plays a part in our overall satisfaction. It's exciting to see an artist who is involved, showing total immersion in performing. There are some musicians who always look 100 per cent engrossed in the music, while others look bored -- not just by their facial expressions, but in their body language. Granted, it's a job. For all we know, they've had a bad day, are exhausted, have something on their minds -- any number of things that affect us all in our daily lives. But they are onstage, and their attitude communicates to the audience, influencing the concert experience.

It's a rare occasion when we see a soloist behave lackadaisically on stage. It's often the opposite, as many have mastered bravado that wows crowds. Exuding confidence and flair, these artists regularly garner standing ovations, great performance or not. They play the part and many people love it.

Winnipeggers are fortunate to have a range of quality soloists brought in by various groups. Topping them all has to be the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, whose seasons are packed with top-notch guest artists. Following recent performances by Marc-André Hamelin, Janina Fialkowska and Isabel Bayrakdarian, the MCO still has countertenor Daniel Taylor and soprano Suzie Leblanc, cellist Colin Carr and Winnipeg soprano Tracy Dahl on the roster. Virtuosi Concerts finds artists we may not know so well, but who are often terrific up-and-comers we're glad to discover.

Then there are the conductors. It can be fascinating to watch different conductors -- the flow and clarity of their movements, their energy and their approach to the ensemble. Sometimes you can read how musicians feel about a visiting conductor by their expressions as the maestro first turns to face them. It is the conductor's interpretative vision that shapes the entire performance of a work, making all the difference in whether it touches you as a listener.

Of course, you have to like the actual pieces of music being played. Most musical organizations rely on programming committees to make the selections for the season; then it's up to us to choose what appeals most to our taste. It is essential, though, for all musical groups to select repertoire with their audiences in mind. While an ensemble may have always wanted to mount a production of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, for example, it may be a bit heavy for an afternoon out.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra offers traditional classics and a series of Pops concerts, many of which have a spectacle aspect to them, featuring dancers, acrobats, Broadway hits or rock tributes. Their annual week-long New Music Festival showcases the latest compositions from around the world. New music aficionados can also attend GroundSwell's annual series.

Manitoba boasts a rich vocal/choral tradition, with a number of excellent choirs, Manitoba Opera and the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, all providing attractive options for choral lovers.

But what makes a good concert experience for you? Do you prefer large-scale works in big venues or intimate concerts in smaller ones? Have you attended an unforgettable performance? What made it special? Let me know by emailing to the address below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2013 C3

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