An incidental pleasure of new music performances is the time spent in out-of the-way churches. For this Danish-themed concert, Spitalfields Festival bade us gather together in St John's Hoxton; a stately early 19th century building with beautiful ceiling decorations, set in its own leafy grounds steps away from super-modern Old Street. The Festival has a noble history of presenting music which other promoters ignore, and I particularly want to thank them for this current illuminating series of small-scale premieres which, on this evening, was being recorded by BBC Radio 3.
The ingenious programme, titled TELL, combined new works by Danish composer Rasmus Zwicki and Michael Finnissy (including Finnissy's 40-minute Liederkreis based on writings by Hans Christian Andersen.) Soprano Mimi Doulton is a really remarkable performer; completely on top of the technicalities, expressive and intelligent. Ben Smith is an unusually thoughtful and creative pianist- also a composer (that figures). It was a fascinating evening.
It goes without saying that Mimi's diction was exactly as you would wish; but those words (some of them in Danish or occasionally German) still needed to be seen, and so had been helpfully collected by the Festival and printed in a downloadable programme. This however raised an issue I have encountered quite a bit recently: namely the question of how much programme information the audience have access to mid-concert, particularly where the music includes multiple texts, sometimes requiring translation. Being the conscientious person I am, I had printed out these helpful seven pages at home; but the moment the concert started, the lights went down and my pages became invisible.
Meanwhile a few others were trying to view the texts on their phones (as they had been invited to do). But a couple of people told me it didn't feel right flashing bright phone screens in a darkened venue, so they stopped. And we then all agreed that we anyway go to concerts to get away from our screens. It was even worse the other day, said someone else, trying to do this in a 'proper' concert hall which had no available signal. I certainly don't miss those plump, expensive printed programmes with posh advertisements and endless artist-bios. But I do have a huge interest in words combined with music, and how they fit together. As a composer, I'm getting discouraged from setting poetry to music, if there's little prospect that the audience will be able to follow the words while the music is in progress.
What's the answer? Surtitles? Surely too fiddly for a single small venue concert. Back to printed programmes for sale? Too expensive these days, and paper-wasting. Maybe keeping the venue auditorium partly lit during works with text might be worth a try. But some would find this a boring and un-stylish solution.