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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Orchestral Audiences in the Dark

From the Vault Dept.: I do enjoy clambering onto my soapbox and this, from a mere twenty-three years ago, is another attempt to figure out the problem with classical music concert attendance. The Morton Downey reference is a beaut. I told the same Piatigorsky story in another post, but let this celebrate a recent performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto that I very much enjoyed.


Illustration by Michael Prinzo
SOME OF THE MOST staid-sounding music, music we take very much for granted, was once an earsore that garnered bouquets of hate from its critics. This applies equally to Beethoven and the Beatles. Critical drubbing is good: it can fuel the songwriter to achieve even greater standards of work, and it offers the auditor a barometer of opinion. We all have critics whose opinions are guaranteed to fall 180 degrees away from our own.

It’s the audience who decides the worth of a piece because music is a dialogue between composer and listener. The better trained an audience is to listen, the more satisfying that dialogue will be.

As music shifted from being the entertainment of kings and popes to a more streetwise relationship with the populace, composers saw the potential for a little rabble-rousing. The story of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiere is well known: the rioting it engendered attracted lots of attention and quickened the work’s enshrinement in the repertory.

But it required an audience savvy enough (and vocal enough) to react so outrageously. Can you imagine rioting in Albany?

We’re too complacent. Sure, we’ll writhe and moan when some dull pot-clanger of a work goes on and on, but there are two problems at work there: first, we have no precedent for actively demonstrating disaffection; second, we’re probably not giving the piece a fair shake in the first place. Getting upset over a piece you don’t even know how to listen to has as much credibility as the Morton Downey Show, and is about as culturally enlightened.

We need what I think of as musical terrorism: a contract among composer, performer and listener ensuring that each will do his best to fulfill his particular obligation. Why terrorism? Because each participant has lately gotten so lazy that it’ll take a bomb to startle him out of that torpor.

One of my favorite recent musical moments occurred not in a concert hall but at the home of a friend whose young daughter has been taking piano lessons and wanted to try out some Kuhnau sonatinas on me.

The exercise began like a rusty wind-up toy, creaking spasmodically up to a consistent tempo; then her hands took life as she forgot to be nervous and let herself be guided by the instinct of repetition. And by passion.

The music is simple, two-voiced stuff that is easily dismissed as a trifle, but our young artist warmed to the challenge it presented her and glowed with satisfaction as she conquered the opening Allegro.

It was easy to forget that this was an exercise when the combination of skill and wonder made the performance become transparent. That is, you did the aural equivalent of seeing through the notes into an emotionally-rich interpretation.

A test of a good work is the amount of mystery it conceals. To an artist this means that the music resists becoming boring. Interpretation is a matter of going beyond the notes into the magical world that beckons from that other side. The listener is faced with a similar challenge, but is rewarded with an emotionally enriching confrontation, a confrontation with feelings only available through music.

Any great songwriter, from Chopin to Paul Simon, creates material that works on a hidden level only accessible when performer and  listener combine to reveal it.

The classical audience is the worst-prepared. It doesn’t do its homework and approaches the unfamiliar with no foreknowledge; it relies too heavily on the familiar and therefore non-threatening; it too often lazily waits to be entertained as if a row of dancing dogs should suddenly appear.

A slow, lush movement from a Mahler symphony should communicate as many ideas as there are listeners. It may put one person in mind of a pleasant romantic encounter; another may think of fishing on a lake. Someone else might find it depressing and take sorrowful comfort in that; to still another it may be feel wistfully happy. Even on stage there should be similar reactions as conductor and performers all translate the mechanics of notes into the intangibles of feeling.

My favorite concerts are those that provide the opportunity for this give-and-take to occur. It’s happened in a variety of settings, from the aforementioned living room to (what was then) Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. The event I’m thinking of took place in the early 1970s when cellist Gregor Piatigorsky gave one of his last concerts, playing the Dvořák concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez.

This was a “Musicians’ Pension Fund” night and I had to come up with the unprecedented amount of $20 for a ticket. I skipped out of high school for the day to make a day of it in New York, and by the time I was seated it was a long-haired, bedraggled teen among a throng of tuxedoed oldsters, many of them in attendance only because of some sense of duty.

The guy beside me, a bald geek with thick glasses, snorted and sighed throughout the beginning of the concerto, until something happened that made all of us take extra special notice.

Piatigorsky and the orchestra hadn’t rehearsed together much: there were some different ideas of tempo being thrown around. But this imposing-looking soloist suddenly let rip a flow of music (and Dvořák is filled with the potential to be very passionate) that transcended sound to become sheer magic.

You could feel the audience perk up and listen. You could feel the orchestra come solidly together. And the rest of that piece was an amazing, sublime experience. The geek beside me rose to his feet at the end with sincere cheers.

We can’t always count on a soloist to act as Pied Piper, leading us under that kind of spell, so it’s important that we spend a few moments while settling into that seat to think again about our responsibilities as concert-goers and practice the skill of actively listening.
Metroland Magazine, Jan. 12, 1989

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