The demon drink
by Norman Lebrecht / March 8, 2000
MUCH to report from behind the baton. Paris is abuzz over its next two conductors, Myung-Whun Chung and Kurt Masur. Chung, who left the Opéra six years ago with a nine-million-franc payoff, is back this week at the head of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Can’t wait to read the severance clause in his new contract.
Masur, who is saying a long goodbye to the New York Philharmonic, is about to sign up with the Orchestre National de France. This may explain why his title with the London Philharmonic has been subtly downgraded from music director to principal conductor. Paris still outpays any musical city except Tokyo, though the quality of its orchestras never seems to be affected by the price of its conductors.
The news from Berlin is that plans to merge the Deutsche Oper with the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester under the baton of Kent Nagano have fallen through after a colourful falling out between Nagano and the city’s opera supremo, Udo Zimmermann. This used to be known as the English disease – the thwarting of any rationalisation of musical resources by the stubbornness of musicians. Now, it seems to be spreading across the EU, though not perhaps for much longer. French and German officials have given solemn warnings that the gravy train is running dry.
Would that the same were true of the water supply in metropolitan concert halls. A recent perversion has been spotted on many stages. Singers who come on for a solo recital are increasingly accompanied not just by a pianist in funerary outfit but by a bottle of mineral water from which they swig, ad libitum, between one of Schubert’s swansongs and the next.
Where this unsavoury habit originated is unclear, and I will refrain from naming the guilty parties before giving due warning. However, apart from constituting a gross discourtesy to a seat-belted audience who cannot wet their whistles until the interval, it is also as inelegant a gesture as anything you will ever pay to see. In a recent concert performance of an early Puccini opera, the entire cast joined in the glugging, before and after every aria.
What next? Will they hawk and expectorate like footballers? Throw their bottles to the ground like marathon runners? Or spray the front rows with the gassy contents like Formula One racing drivers?
Offensive drinking has also crept into symphonic concerts. While soloists in Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Fourth symphonies have nothing to sing before the finale, most conductors like them to sit around for three movements to pick up the tempi and show willing. The momentum and intensity of a performance can be seriously disrupted by singers trooping on after the Adagio and collecting an unearned round of appreciation.
An artist does not expend many calories sitting still for 40 minutes while the fiddles saw, the trumpets blow and the maestro sweats the seams out of his shirt. But a growing number of soloists are now refusing to sit on stage without their trusty bottle of Evian to hand. The lights – they gasp – the dust, the air conditioning. Gotta have a drink.
Some politicians will, no doubt, approve of the new informality as a concession to youth culture and a general softening of concert severities.
If that is to be the case, let soloists present themselves in baggy pants and trainers, and let the public be forewarned. Alternately, if performers are to be allowed their little drink, there should be no restraint on audience indulgence. In the early days of the Berlin Philharmonic, beer would be served to patrons while Brahms was played up front.
And why restrict the licence to soloists? Let orchestral players keep a yard of ale or a gin-and-tonic underneath their seats, in case they need something extra to get them through a programme of classical pops.
Before anyone gets trampled in the bibulous rush, someone has to call time on the current round of drinks. What is at stake is a defining issue of artistic integrity. Art, at its best, involves discipline and self-denial.
At its worst, it succumbs to self-indulgence. When a singer cannot go 40 minutes without a drink, he or she ceases to be an artist and becomes a pampered fool. It is up to figures of musical authority to stamp out the swigging at source and restore some dignity to the concert scene. That’s where the conductor can prove worthy of his hire.
The demon drink