Is performing by heart a gimmick?

Finishing our Winter Festival with a bang this year is baroque collective Solomon’s Knot, performing Bach’s seasonal Christmas Oratorio from memory. We spoke to Jonathan Sells, Joint Artistic Director of Solomon’s Knot, about how this changes a performance, and the reasons behind his choice.

Why does Solomon’s Knot perform from memory? Isn’t it just a gimmick?

I am often asked these questions, not least by fellow performers who are afraid of stepping outside their comfort zone. And that is exactly the point. I’m not interested in “comfort zone” performances, and neither are audiences. Singing from memory frees the singers from the bonds of the printed score, a liberation which leaves us nowhere to hide. There is no alternative but direct communication: with the audience, and with one’s fellow musicians. This communication is also demanded by the fact that we work without a conductor. In this respect, not having a score to distract you is a great help, and enables the electricity of mass chamber music to pass directly between the musicians, and from them on to the audience.

Working like this is not self-evident. We first sang Messiah from memory in 2012, one year after we introduced the “chamber” concept (two singers to a part, with no conductor). We were only able to dream up either of these mad ideas because of the sheer skill of the musicians in Solomon’s Knot. The singers are primarily soloists, many of them with operatic experience, and are also exceptional ensemble singers. Without their unique set of skills, what we do would not be possible. The reason they love to perform with Solomon’s Knot is that their full skill set is employed and pushed to the limit. This motivates them to invest in our performances above and beyond the call of duty for a routine “gig”.

British singers are famed the world over for their sight-reading. There really is no comparison — in any mixed international choir, it’s the Brits who’ll be getting the notes right from the start of the first rehearsal. This facility saves time and money: we rehearse less in the UK than most other places.  The danger is that it becomes too easy to knock off “microwaved” performances at a relatively high level on very little rehearsal. Of course, the standard is professional, the tuning is exemplary and so on, but for me there’s often something missing. The music stays on the surface, in one ear and out the other. In memorising, one is forced to internalise the entire musical material and structure of a piece: all the information one needs to place one’s individual part correctly within the whole. From a vocal point of view, the notes are “sung in” better too. This process of internalisation and the resulting intimate familiarity with the masterpieces of Western art with which we are privileged to work is an unusual enrichment for us as musicians. It is one that transforms the concert experience for everyone in the room.

My belief is that audiences are gripped by risk-taking, and this is borne out time and again by the feedback from our performances. No, it’s not a gimmick.

Jonathan Sells

Joint Artistic Director of Solomon’s Knot

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