Amplification in the theater

In Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his collected lyrics and attendant observations on theater, Stephen Sondheim writes:

What bothers me [about amplification] is the softening effect it has on the audience’s concentration. [S]itting in those ceiling-scraping seats, hearing an orchestra hundreds of feet away, and squinting at Mary Martin’s face, which was the size of a dime, we had to concentrate. Mary Martin had a small, coy voice, and in order to hear her, we had to lean vertiginously forward. None of the luxury of sitting back and letting the show come to us – we had to lean into it. The concentration required was so great that we had to shut out the real world, and in so doing we became participants in the experience, all of which made it easy to suspend disbelief and enter another world; and the more of that in the theater, the better. With the advent of amplification, ears became lazy and audiences now tend to visit rather than enter.

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Efficient communication and trust

Let’s say I’d like to accomplish the following task with some code: I’ve got a list of names of fruits, and I want to know how many contain the letter ‘a’. Back in the day, this might have been done in assembly language, very low-level instructions which directly tell a CPU the details of which bytes to move into which memory locations and how to examine them in order to find out the answer.

A more recent way of doing this in a typical high-level structured programming language (like C#) would look like this:

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Look, no hands!

A friend of mine linked to an NPR story called “What Happened to Leonard Bernstein’s Hands?”, which includes this wonderful video (watch what he does after the first 8 or 9 seconds):

As my teacher, the late Frederik Prausnitz, used to say, “You just have to figure out where you need to beat. It is a myth that orchestras need every beat of every bar. Some bars they don’t need it altogether.”

Giving a clear beat is in some sense both the most fundamental and the least important thing that a conductor can do. This Bernstein video is kind of an edge case, but it’s very illustrative nonetheless. Bernstein was a great conductor, and the Vienna Philharmonic is a great orchestra, and they worked together often and had a close relationship. Haydn’s music is not technically challenging for this orchestra; they could probably play it quite well with their eyes closed. And in this particular case, what the video shows is an encore of a movement they had just finished performing, with Bernstein conducting normally.

So does all this mean that Bernstein is doing nothing and just letting the orchestra have at it? Not at all. A conductor’s face can be as important as his hands in communicating with an orchestra (if not more so), and Bernstein had a very expressive face. What he is showing, very clearly, is the desired character of the music, along with an indication of how different parts of the orchestra take the lead at different times.

Most importantly, his face telegraphs changes in the music right before they take place, just like a good preparatory beat with the baton.