Hidden Indiscretions

ONCE IN A WHILE, after no doubt marvelling at their beauty, someone asks me why our brochure covers now exhibit ‘abstract art.’ For instance, Winnipegger Kenneth Lavallee’s quasi-figurative art decorates next season’s brochure cover. This season’s brochure featured a psychedelic deer illustrated by Ben Clarkson, and last season’s, the exquisite doodles of Takashi Iwasaki.

While a self-serious photo of classical musicians strutting in blazers and gowns might be a more conventional format for brochure covers, why shouldn’t we paint outside the box? Synesthetic painter Kandinsky famously wrote about the ‘spiritual’ connections between abstract painting and music, although no one should believe me if I said I had in mind Kandinsky’s highfalutin theories when settling on a promotional image for our next season. Yet even advertising has its philosophers, one of whom would, I think, endorse our new design choice.

In the 1920s and 30s, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, led a revolution in advertising. Consumers aren’t particularly rational, he argued against the prevailing business theory, being most powerfully driven by barely conscious animal instincts. In his view, advertising techniques should exploit this reality by associating products with fanciful images and messages that tickle peoples’ deepest desires. So, when we watch Don Draper of Mad Men pitch an ad campaign juxtaposing Jaguar automobiles with beautiful models, he’s applying Bernays’ cynical wisdom.

One needn’t buy the junk science behind the Bernaysian movement to understand that a pretty picture on a brochure just might provide ‘positive stimulus’ enough to nudge someone to pick it up for the first time. And, especially if your product is Bach rather than beer, the nice thing about a nonfigurative painting art is that it shouldn’t offend anyone, except maybe anti-art populists. Good abstract art is seductive; it’s not suggestive.

Except when it is. One season I came dangerously close to using an image on our cover that, thematically, would’ve probably been more appropriate in a beer or Jaguar commercial. The work, a lovely melange of primary colours and two-dimensional shapes, didn’t seem to represent anything. But, after looking more closely at some of its shapelier shapes, someone in the office tactfully asked me in an email: “Does the piece contain a hidden indiscretion?” MCO designer Jon and I squinted at the image, like two analysands looking for titillating forms in a Rorschach inkblot, before deciding it was all in our heads.

It wasn’t until just a couple hours before the brochure was scheduled to go to print that Jon finally unscrambled the racy scene at the centre of the piece and laid it out for the rest of us. Luckily, with minutes to spare before deadline we found a gorgeous replacement image, and probably averted some awkward conversations with patrons. As in advertising, abstract painting sometimes harbours subliminal messages that would make even Freud blush.

And so it is with music. Take, for instance, Haydn’s 45th Symphony, which the MCO performs at next season’s March concert. The context surrounding the piece’s composition here is key: Haydn and his gang of musicians had been cooped up for much longer than expected in Prince Esterhazy’s summer home, and were dying to go home and see their families and wives. (“I was young and lusty in those days, too,” Haydn is supposed to have remarked.) Rather than appeal directly to the Prince for sabbatical, Haydn implanted the request in the music itself. During the final movement, each musician puts down their instrument, blows out the candle on their music stand, and leaves the stage in turn. The Prince took the hint, as the next morning the musicians woke up to discover carriages waiting to deliver them home.

Then there’s Shostakovich’s DSCH motif, which appears throughout his œuvre including in his first cello concerto, performed by the MCO and brilliant cellist Colin Carr next September. Shostakovich wrote and used the motif, which in German transliteration stands for Dmitri Schostakowitsch, as a muffled crie de coeur on behalf of the Artist and Individual censored and persecuted under Soviet Russia. Nothing bawdy here, but another provocative case of the subliminal in non-representational art.

I would spend more time pitching you on the 2018/19 season, but in a Bernaysian spirit I’ve been busy telling you spicy stories. For a thorough run-down of next season, you now have the brochure to enjoy.

Conrad Sweatman