I was listening to a classical radio station last week and found one of them again – a pretentious, affected, stuffy announcer who made classical music sound alienating and unattractive. It made me think that if I were a young person just discovering classical music for the first time and heard that announcer, I would quickly change the station and say, “This kind of music is for starch-shirts or weirdoes, not for me, I’m outta here.”
We need to gang up to kill off the old affectations that surround classical music. Mostly, affected ways of talking about classical music. If we don’t make our favorite kind of music welcoming to younger people, classical audiences will dwindle in the years to come. And of course, that will be bad for the art form we all love.
Where Do these Affectations Come From?
I don’t know, but I can point to some performers who have adopted highly affected ways of speaking. I don’t want to name names, but there’s one famous American soprano who has invented some kind of weird, halting, pseudo-European accent. Then there’s the American baritone who appears to have forgotten exactly how to speak English. He says stuff like, “I was about to perform – how do you say? – a recital.” These people might have spent a couple of years in Europe, sure. But not enough to lose their ability to speak their – how do you say? – native tongue.
Please note that I am not writing about musicians who speak accented English because English is not their native language. I’m talking about affected, pretentious, put-on speech that some native English-speaking musicians adopt. Why? Because they are nuts.
Thankfully, I can name some top American performers who just speak English like normal people. I’m thinking of people like Deborah Voigt, Jonathan Biss, Joyce DiDonato, Marilyn Horne, Gary Graffman, Alan Gilbert, Kent Tritle, and others. They all sound like normal, nice people.
If you want to hear a top classical musician who talks like a normal person, watch this clip of the phenomenal mezzo Joyce DiDonato talking to a group of students. If anybody has the right to put on airs, she does. But she doesn’t.
WQXR as an Exemplar of How We Should Speak about Classical Music
If you want to spend some time listening to well-informed, unaffected people talking classical music, I’d urge you to listen to the following announcers on WQXR, New York’s classical radio station: Annie Bergen, Elliott Forrest, David Garland, Naomi Lewin, Terrance McKnight, and Jeff Spurgeon. These people, in my opinion, are among greatest classical music announcers ever. They’re funny, down-to-earth, and unpretentious. (Gregg Whiteside, formerly of WQXR, now works for WRTIin Philadelphia; he’s top-notch too.)
All these folks, by the way, have good-to-excellent abilities to pronounce French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. (I’ve even heard some Czech flying around.) And when they do, they don’t make it sound like they’re turning you away at the door of some stuffy club where you don’t, and never could, belong.