Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Eternal "Concert Halls are Too Offputting" Debate

Crossposting a long comment I wrote on Greg Sandow's blog, since, well, content is content...

Sandow's original post is here, which was followed by comments that people, especially the young, are loath to replete shrinking classical music audiences because the concert hall is too restrictive and doesn't allow for enough audience expression.

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I guess I just find it hard to believe that anyone who is likely to actually be interested in classical music is being kept out of the concert hall because of these petty prohibitions. At some point you have to want to sit through 40 minutes of Beethoven, not just try to endure 40 minutes of Beethoven by distracting yourself with your phone and intermittent clapping. And if you don't want to sit through it then why should you have to? Look, if the goal here is to trick people to get some extra butts in the seats and massage hurting orchestras' revenues, that's a business decision and you gotta do what you gotta do. But that's a conversation for business development departments or something, not for people interested in broader questions about how to best serve music they love.

On who has the etiquette rules, I made careful to specify "not in a bar". I like going to bars, and I like to hear music in bars, and I think that these efforts to do chamber music in bars and bar-like venues is great. I'm hoping to finally get to a show at Le Poisson Rouge the weekend after next and am very excited about it. But it's a different etiquette because its a space with multiple purposes. And while it's great for some things, it's kind of hard to fit the CSO in most bars, not to mention major dance and theater, which have similar if not identical etiquette. I was at that CONTACT show that had Nico's pieces in it, and I agree that the Harris theater is a big hulking space far better suited to opera or dance than the kind of intimate, personal chamber music they were doing, and the atmosphere was stilted. Presenters can always do a better job of choosing an appropriate venue. But the point is there are different levels of appropriate interaction in each that would feel out of place in another.

It goes to the heart of why Sandow's comments sometimes feel problematic to me, i.e. this example Sandow uses above with a New Orleans jazz band inspiring dancing through the street. Putting aside his misleading example of the Bernstein performance, which obviously is a special case of history and moment, why should an everyday Beethoven 9th performance and an everyday New Orleans jazz band performance be experienced the same way? Why must we force those people dancing in the street to do it to Beethoven or vice versa? Can't we just let them have the real thing?

I think we have all this anecdotal evidence of younger audiences being disproportionately attracted to groups like Bang on a Can because THAT IS WHAT THEY LIKE. It doesn't make them particularly interested in hearing Schubert art songs. So let people listen to Bang on a Can at their desired volume. And if that means in 20 years, there are fewer Schubert recitals given, then that’s how its going to be. I feel pretty confident that there is enough of a critical mass of people who will still love to perform and listen to Schubert that we're not facing some kind of Schubert extinction. But when it is performed, let people listen to it the way people who love it want to listen to it. Let them enjoy the quietness and delicacy of Schubert's melodies in some kind of recital space, unamplified, and don't force them or the performers to interrupt their concentration for people getting up to go to the bathroom or a round of applause every 3 minutes.

Let's have more trust in the judgment of people who seek out the performance of music because they love to know how they want to experience it. I suspect anything else is an exercise in futility.

P.S. This agony over the clapping thing has got to stop. It’s a useful convention because the audience doesn’t know how a conductor/ensemble/etc. wants to handle a transition between movements and it’s just the nature of the beast that we let it be their prerogative to shape a performance. We give them the freedom to let a quiet movement settle or drive right into the next. Also, it ends up adding a lot of time to a concert with a bunch of movements. The only people who are “concerned” about it are those who act like this one piece of practical performance etiquette is a grave personal affront. We live in a society predicated upon venue specific etiquette, why can’t people accept that this is the etiquette for this particular interaction? I don’t get it.

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A final point: I hope the part about Bang on a Can and loudness doesn't come off dismissive. Disproportionate interest among contemporary audiences for contemporary music is obviously the world we want to live in and they are creating really exciting and interesting music. Yeah, it probably means some restructuring in the Schubert industry, but Schubert will be OK. My point was just that we shouldn't force the appropriate performance practice of one onto the performance practice of the other.

Later: Dur...small correction: that commenter on Sandow's blog was referencing a comment Nico Muhly made about the NY Phil's new music series. I mixed that up with the MusicNOW series the CSO does that I saw Nico in the other year (I think I imagined it with a similarly aggressive exclamation point). Anyhow. The Harris Theater is still kind of a sucky venue for chamber music.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Christopher Maltman at the Austrian Embassy

A lovely recital by Christopher Maltman last night, with Graham Johnson at the keys. Maltman's voice is extremely beautiful, to be sure, but his first priority is really conveying the dramatic meaning of these pieces, and in that he succeeds quite brilliantly. Yes, he does that baritone lieder singer thing where his loud dynamics sometimes push into this coarse hollow place that gets overused and is grating. But I think maybe that's just my issue with the medium, since everyone (except Goerne, natch) does it.

The program was a really unexpected and surprising mix of, uh, settings of Goethe by 19th century Austro-German composers. But you know, parameters like that and you've got to pick some interesting stuff. So among the numerous Schubert selections we got a fascinating setting of an excerpt from Faust in which the singer shifts between Gretchen, the evil voice tempting her, and a chorus (how awesome would a Schubert composed one-man Faust opera be??? #fantasylieder); two mythological pieces, the beautiful "Ganymede" and the epic "Prometheus"; and the delightful "Der Fischer". In the sheer Schubertian beauty department, Maltman offered up both the "Wanderers Nachtlied(er?)", an incredibly restrained, haunting "Meeres Stille", "Wilkommen und Abschied" and more.

We also got the setting of "Erlkonig" by Carl Loewe (though they couldn't resist doing the Schubert as an encore), and Loewe's delightful setting of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", taken at an appropriately dazzling speed. The regular program closed with two completely beautiful knockouts: Brahms' "Dämmerung senkte sich von oben" and Loewe's "Lynceus der Türmer, auf Fausts Sternwarte singend".

Not that Goethe needs the shout-out, but it is remarkable to think about how a single artist provided 19th century romantics with inspiration for basically every aspect of their emotional/aesthetic imagination. Bleakest despair, check. High (but genuine) Romantic Schmaltz, check. Medieval fantasies, check. Magic and faeries, check. It's all in there.

But Maltman clearly thrives on this variation, and reminded the audience that done properly, interpreting these songs requires truly rarefied storytelling skills. I'm not great at extracting the details of accompanists' contributions to recitals but I will also note that Johnson's fine playing shone particularly in the wonderful piano writing in the Wolf selections.

Update: Link to Charles Downey's take in the Post...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mitsuko Uchida at Strathmore

Had my first chance to hear Mitsuko Uchida live last night at Strathmore in a deeply affecting performance of Mozart and Schumann.

To grasp for a word, there is something so internal about this playing. One feels as though there is no gesture, no effect designed solely to appeal to the listener in the concert hall. Not that speaking to the audience is a bad thing, of course, but I think wrapping your head around her approach means understanding how everything she does is to serve an internal emotional logic in the music.

Accordingly, the opening of the Mozart A Minor Sonata was neurotic, frantic, desperate. The forward momentum, save for those blessed, haunting echoes in the main theme, nearly tripped over itself, devolving into masses of clotted chords in the denser sections. But of course this frenzy resolved into the Andante, and some of the most enlightening Mozart I have heard in a long, long time. Uchida shies away from Mozart as a deliciously balanced, finely humming machine--instead she seeks a clarity of statement almost embarrassing in its immediacy.

In her Davidbundlertanze, it was easy to muse on how this reading must get very close to how Schumann sought to truly portray the inner life of the heart and mind, each miniature singing with completely authentic ecstasy, melancholy, what have you. Though at times one grew restless for perhaps more structure to guide things overall.

And then after the break, the Fantasy in C Major. I love this piece so dearly, and to hear it played with an honesty and conviction that never left one feeling something had been compromised or left to expedience was just...really, really awesome. The third movement was especially fine--the opening sequence, earthbound, circling around itself, unable to to find any light, then suddenly and completely disarmed by a theme of raw naked longing, utterly incapable of being anything but itself. I think there may have been some note slips in the nastier sections (which were still exhilarating), but these mattered not at all to the overall impression.

Surely spent from such an evening, the sole encore was simple, purifying Bach.

P.S. Charles Downey's WaPo review here...

P.P.S. What was up with the riff-raff in the grand tier the other night? The parody level extent of inappropriate coughing/candy unwrapping/KLEENEX UNWRAPPING/whispering would have been hilarious if it hadn't been so frigging annoying. It was like date night at the Met but with adults who should know better. Let's get it together, people.