On Tuesday the Guardian had an article about the growing number of stand-up comedians who bring a ‘work in progress’ to the Edinburgh Fringe instead of a fully-developed show. During their run, which could be anything up to three weeks, they ‘develop’ the show, which goes on to tour elsewhere. Sometimes this ‘in-progress’ status is reflected in a cheaper price; sometimes not. Their audiences are big and loyal enough that they’ll pay good money to hear something still being tweaked.
I looked through the 400+ pages of the Fringe brochure to see how comedy runs compare to classical concerts. The difference was striking. Compare the stand-up comedian to the solo pianist. Typically the comedian will perform the same show night after night in the same venue. The pianist, however, will have a single concert date. There are variants: sometimes a group of musicians will present daily concerts, but conscientiously varying the permutations of performers and the programme (as happens also at most music festivals). But if you study either the Edinburgh International Festival brochure or the Fringe brochure it’s clear that the typical concert happens once only.
Why is music so different from theatre? Why does a visiting orchestra come for one night while a visiting theatre company stays for two weeks? There’s a huge mismatch between the amount of preparation that goes in to a single concert and the moment of performance. In that respect music is like the Olympics, where, as we’ve been constantly reminded of late, four or more years of training culminates in a burst of high-profile competition. For the classical solo or chamber musician, too, the single concert is just the outward and visible sign of an awful lot of private practice. Yes, they may have the chance to play the programme elsewhere, but maybe not for a while, and when they do they’ll have to prepare it all over again. Admittedly, touring offers a chance to repeat the same programme in different cities, but touring is only an occasional thing for most musicians. Apart from the theatrical genres of opera and stage musicals, classical musicians have no equivalent of the theatrical ‘run’.
Therefore every concert is a unique chance to make your mark, and every classical performer is obsessed with the fact. If you play less than your best on this one night, you may never be invited back. This fact shapes most musicians’ lives. I can’t even imagine going on stage in front of the paying public with a programme advertised as ‘work in progress’. If I want to try out a concert programme, I do so in private and for free.
Would I prefer a long run of concerts and the chance to try stuff out over several weeks, with the audience’s agreement that I can experiment? I can hardly even imagine it because my professional life has been organised along such utterly different lines. Has any musician tried it, and if so, what was the result? I’d love to hear.