Saturday, August 4, 2012

Lessons from the Opry

I'm fresh back from vacation and ready to start thinking about music again. Charleston was a welcome break, but my first musical inspiration came in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Those most familiar with my musical preferences know that I can handle almost any type of music for a time. ALMOST any type of music...just not twangy country, bluegrass, and gospel. There is such irony in this fact since I was raised in the deep South, lived in a home that ADORED these sounds, and serve in a church with a rich Southern gospel tradition.

At the end of my vacation with my parents, I found myself back in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee with tickets to see Smokey Mountain Opry. I was convinced this was going to be the longest 2 1/2 hours of my life. Before the show, I turned to my Mom and asked if she would give me CPR if I began to convulse uncontrollably because of the bad music. The newest show on the Parkway, I was pleasantly surprised to find that SMO was a wonderfully entertaining show with strong vocals, an outstanding band, and a wide variety of musical genres.

As I left the theater, my mind began to race with the lessons that could be learned from this experience. Here's what I came up with based upon this single performance and my personal mindset at the moment. (In other words, these are my opinions; if you disagree, that's fine!)

#1 - Exceed their expectations! In any audience, there will always be members expecting a less than stellar performance. Regardless of why, it is our responsibility as engaging performers to rise above their anticipations. This process begins with the programming. Does the performance offer variety of styles, tempi, and moods? Are there rises and falls in the dramatic progression of pieces? As we near the performance date, have we eliminated predictable routines and included elements of surprise -- both aurally and visually?

#2 - Be willing to make difficult cuts for the benefit of the total experience! I have always thought it would be fun to serve as a consultant for a production company doing this type of show. While the whole was exceptional, there were 2 or 3 performers who would be terminated (assuming that last night's performance was the standard) and a few others would be given serious warnings. Additionally, a few songs were beyond poorly performed; rather, they were painful to watch and should be cut from the show. Specifically, the song "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" in the movie set was awkwardly staged, poorly sung, and uncomfortable for the audience. As I look back on the show, it seems clear that "Flowers" was used as a filler in order to allow the technical crew to prepare for the demanding scenes saluting Top Gun that followed -- including the appearance of a fighter jet on stage. While allowing time for the set up, "Flowers" also robbed the audience of excitement and sapped the energy that should have been rising to a climax as we neared the opening rock anthem. Perhaps the song was more effective in the run, but now it has lost its effectiveness. It would be in the best interest of the show to remove it and rearrange the set in order to keep a better pacing.

Similar consideration must be taken in regards to our own solo and ensemble repertoire. Despite the number of hours we have invested in a piece and our emotional connection to it, it is crucial that we examine it truthfully. Is the piece ready for a public hearing? Does its inclusion create an unforeseen problem in the flow of the recital as a whole? If a negative answer arises to either question, we must consider dropping the piece from the concert -- even if the programs have already been printed (I've grown weary of that lame excuse!) -- and do what is the most musically honest choice. Our audience has placed their trust in us as artists to make the tough decisions to insure their total enjoyment of our performance.

#3 - Accentuate your strengths! Three singers rose to the foreground and were amazing: the host (JT, I think), his wife, who was outstanding in the gospel set, and the lone African-American member of the cast. The African-American tenor was featured on only 2 songs that I recall -- "Thriller" and a Frank Sinatra standard which escapes me at the moment -- while other cast members were repeatedly in the spotlight and consistently flat and straining. Where has the musical director been? Even though it's tough in a long run like this, roles need to be reassigned and whatever staging changes necessary need to be made in order to accommodate them. This show is too good to suffer in order to protect performer egos.

The female singer mentioned above was a stand out in her rendition of "How Great Thou Art" in the middle of a struggling 2nd half. Everything in me wanted to see this section extended -- only 2 selections were presented and the spiritual medley was average at best -- and continue to feature her. This would have given ample rest to tired male cast members and recognized that a majority of the Pigeon Forge crowd has a strong affinity for gospel music. Honestly, the big band set at the beginning of the 2nd act was a train wreck. I would shorten it and allow more time for the strong gospel singing.

Early in the show, we were treated to a large ensemble singing a cappella with beautifully complex harmonies and clear attention to detail. The standard was set high and I was excited to hear more. Sadly, that was one of the few times where a large ensemble sang with this degree of accuracy. Even while enjoying the show, I found myself thinking back to the sounds of the opening songs and hoping to hear them again.

Recitalists and conductors often feel pressure to be everything to everyone. While in school, we were required to present a representive piece from each major historical era. Not everyone plays all genres and schools with equal excellence. Personally, I don't play Baroque music well. It's not a matter of technical deficencies or ignorance of the style; the music simply doesn't click with me. On the other hand, I play French and American 20th century music quite well and have spent many years grasping the style of the early Romantics. When I prepare a program, I make sure that I focus on my strengths. It makes me more secure as a player and results in a more satisfying experience for my audience. Do I ever play Baroque music? Of course! When the program cries out for Bach or Scarlatti, I'll add it and do the necessary work to prepare it. I simply don't fall into the trap of believing that a program is incomplete without it.

As you can tell from the lengthy post, Smokey Mountain Opry struck a chord with me. I'll be interested in attending the show again in the future to see if it maintains its high level of performance or if it's just the result of a strong beginning that is not maintained.