Archive for the ‘Complaining’ category

Get With the Program

September 20, 2011

Once again, marathon training and travel have been preventing me from attending the number of classical music concerts I’d like to. This month and the next, if I’m in town, it’ll take something special to get me to go out for a show. But since I can write a blog entry about why the National Symphony Orchestra’s first three programs this season make no sense and still be in bed by 9, I’m going to do that now.

Here are said programs. Note that the “season opening ball concert” does not count because I shrink from anything characterized as a “gala event.” Plus, if it’s a ball, where’s the dancing? (Edit: A commenter points out that there was a ball after the concert at which people danced. I feel kind of dense for not realizing that.) Anyway:

Sept. 29–Oct. 1
Beethoven: Symphony no. 8
Orff: Carmina Burana

Oct. 6–9
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain”
Sibelius: Violin concerto
Liadov: “The Enchanted Lake”
Nielsen: Symphony no. 5

Oct. 27-29
Berlioz: Overture to “Benvenuto Cellini”
Grieg: Piano concerto
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

In the first program, I guess you could be drawing a parallel between the relative rhythmic rumbustiousness of Beeth 8 and the bursting-out-all-over-ness of Carmina, except…I can’t really endorse that. Carmina is a meal in itself, and Beeth 8 makes a curious appetizer.

Carl Orff asking "Why is this Beethoven symphony, great as it is, sitting like a big awkward lump before my Carmina on that program?"

What inspired this blog post were the second and third programs, which obviously got scrambled up somewhere in the development process. Each features Russian nationalist music and a big Scandinavian work or works. The juxtaposition of Sibelius/Nielsen and Mussorgsky/Liadov in the first program isn’t telling any obvious story, though, and neither is Grieg vs. Mussorgsky in the second program. If you just switch some stuff around and add a couple standard-rep works, though, you get:

Program 1
[add Sibelius: Suite from "Karelia"]
Grieg: Piano concerto
Nielsen: Symphony no. 5

Program 2
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain”
Liadov: “The Enchanted Lake”
[add Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture]
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

The Sibelius violin concerto and the Berlioz got dropped, the former because it is not exactly underheard around here, the latter because it didn’t fit.

Now you have two programs with distinct identities, i.e., the Scandinavian one and the Russian one. The composers hail from a common(ish) heritage yet use their inheritance and materials differently. The works are talking to each other along an easy-to-spot axis, and attendees can usefully compare and contrast throughout.

In addition, you may have noticed that the last day of the Oct. 27-29 program is the Saturday before Halloween. Hmmm, what sort of promo effort could you get together for a program with “Night on Bald Mountain” and some other vaguely enchanted music at that time of year? Since you’re not paying a soloist, maybe the orchestra could surprise the audience with a semi-mandatory encore of Saint-Saens’ “Danse macabre”? Cheesy, sure, but I’d enjoy it. More to the point, it would be easy to enjoy. The existing NSO programs, on the other hand, offer no obvious story or argument and thus no reason to attend the concerts, unless you like one or another of the performers. (I suppose I could make an exception from Sibelius violin concerto fatigue for Gidon Kremer in the first program, if I wasn’t going to be out of town.) They may end up being arresting concerts, but they’re not really commending themselves to the casual observer.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Symphony has one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Grant recipients playing Dvorak’s cello concerto at Strathmore on Saturday. I am going to bestir myself to attend that one.

Kennicott Off-Pitch on Auto-Tune; or, Oh, The T-Pain of It All

August 31, 2010

Philip Kennicott, former classical critic for the Washington Post and current overall culture ponderer, knows a lot more about opera than I do, and he’s a wonderful writer; I don’t always agree with his pieces, but they’re normally thought-provoking. But (and you knew a “but” was coming) his article in yesterday’s Post about the intersection of operatic ideals and Auto-Tuned reality contained so many inaccuracies and misconceptions that it nearly ruined my breakfast. (Fortunately, Frosted Mini-Wheats are ultimately indomitable.) Here are the most problematic parts and my objections thereto:

[Auto-Tune] can also be used to turn spoken speech into sung melody, although the results usually have a rather robotic or metallic sound that is familiar in hip-hop recordings, especially those of T-Pain, a rapper and songwriter who uses the technology so extensively that it has become something of a joke in the industry.

T-Pain is not a rapper; he’s a singer who uses AutoTune to give his melodic lines the “robotic or metallic” tang to which Kennicott refers. The title of T-Pain’s first album is, in fact, “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” which (if you can sound it out) should have been a clue.

I also dispute the proposition that T-Pain’s extensive use of AutoTune is something of a joke in the industry. Rather, the discussion I’ve read lauds T-Pain as a pioneering virtuoso in the expressive use of AutoTune, with his followers lamented for their derivativeness. The most prominent rappers to make extensive use of AutoTune are Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West, and both have cited T-Pain as an exemplar. If, by “the industry,” Kennicott means some group of people outside hip-hop and R&B, maybe what he’s saying is true — I really don’t know.

Kennicott may have been confused by the fact that Weezy and Kanye both became famous as rappers, but both sing (just like T-Pain) in order to get melodic effects in AutoTune. Their endeavors thus differ from those of the Gregory Brothers, who do actually create song from speech.

This is not how the game is played on YouTube. The medium is fundamentally hungry for content, and Auto-Tune is the perfect technology to supply it. Based on the vocoder, a machine that was used to disguise radio transmissions during World War II, Auto-Tune can process speech into music quickly and without need for an actual singer. This has made it controversial: Some pop artists have vociferously protested its overuse.

When I first read this paragraph, I thought Kennicott had forgotten to insert the modifier “competent” before “singer,” because the chief way in which Auto-Tune plagues pop music is not by processing speech into song but allowing people who can’t stay on pitch to sound tolerable on records (see Ke$ha, for one of a million examples). In my readings, it’s this use that “pop artists” protest, not the use of Auto-Tune by folks screwing around on YouTube. (In the case of “The Bed Intruder Song,” no less than Paramore’s Hayley Williams has participated in a cover, one datum countering Kennicott’s assertion.)

This paragraph also reveals a more fundamental problem with Kennicott’s article: He writes like Auto-Tune itself roams the land looking to transform people’s speech into marketable song.  Auto-Tune is a tool, like a potato masher. You can use a potato masher to do great things, like make mashed potatoes, and you can use it to do terrible things, like overmash potatoes into an inedible gluey paste. (Incidentally, it might have been nice for Kennicott to further distinguish between the vocoder, a piece of hardware, and Auto-Tune, which is phase vocoder software sold by Antares Audio Technologies.)  Kennicott further misidentifies the problem in the conclusion of the article:

With Auto-Tune, “first the words, then the music” seems like a joke — the technological realization of an old operatic dream, but at the loss of something elemental, the actual human sympathy that makes us care about what people are singing.

Human beings (in this case, the Gregory Brothers, although they have many followers) are using Auto-Tune to realize that old operatic dream. Kennicott’s article leaves wide open the possibility that someone (apparently not the Gregory Brothers) could take speech and transform it into emotionally complex, affecting music. The right Auto-Tune enthusiast simply hasn’t come along yet. What Kennicott meant to write is something like “With songs like ‘Bed Intruder’…” That he didn’t seems to betray a lack of understanding or engagement, either of which are enough to make this article less that it could have been. Which is too bad, because its central point (as I understand it, “Bed Intruder” = prima le parole) is something I genuinely had not considered before.

In my readerly experience, there is a blithe assurance about much classical-critic writing about pop, seeming to come from the idea that this pop stuff can’t be that complicated. And others are complicit; the Post advertised Kennicott’s piece to me on my Facebook feed as “the most intelligent piece you’re ever likely to read about auto-tuning the news,” which I hope is not true, for reasons discussed above. (And although the Post’s Facebook minder mistakenly lowercased “Auto-Tune,” at least the article bothered to spell “T-Pain” correctly, which not all classical blogs do.)

One of the lines I’m proudest of on this blog is here: “In their recordings, the ladies of Trio Mediaeval sing with an almost eerie precision and purity, like some kind of divine rebuke to the use of AutoTune” [lack of hyphen sic]. That line uses common cultural currency to show how adept the Mediaeval ladies are at a specific type of vocal virtuosity: Anyone who knows pop can understand one reason to listen to these performers. People who know anything about Auto-Tune and read Kennicott’s article, by contrast, probably will be put off by the basic lack of understanding therein. (Reader comments on the article, entirely negative as of this writing, express frustration with Kennicott’s disapproval of the “Bed Intruder Song,” but it’s not hard to imagine that he might have been taken more seriously if he’d shaped up his Auto-Tune discussion, perhaps running it by Chris Richards first.) If we classical music enthusiasts are going to get people fired up to learn more about this music we enjoy so much, we’re first going to have to stop misunderstanding the music they like. (Not to mention that we’ll need to stop deriding it, but I already covered that.

Also, I saw the Janacek reference coming a mile away.

It’s Getting Hot in Here, But Please Don’t Mention It—We’re Classical Music Fans

August 19, 2010

On Tuesday I heard the best concert that’s graced my ears this year, and it wasn’t even in the DMV. Summer travel brought me to Santa Fe, and as part of that town’s chamber music festival, Yuja Wang gave a dazzling hourlong lunchtime recital of works by Robert Schumann (in his 200th birthday year), Alexander Scriabin, and Sergei Prokofiev.

In Schumann’s Op. 111 “Drei Fantasiestücke” (Three Fantasy Pieces), she brought a lightness to Schumann’s thickets of notes that one rarely hears, thanks to fingers that seem able to supply the most difficult runs and combos without any trouble. (I heard this capacity firsthand in music not nearly as fetching when she premiered Jennifer Higdon’s piano concerto with the NSO last fall.) Wang made all those note-thickets sway beguilingly with the melody, as in a breeze, where other pianists seem audibly to be picking their way through the tangles, trying not to tear their clothes on brambles (to abuse a metaphor). Wang assembled a selection of three preludes, an étude, and a poème from various Scriabin opuses, effectively contrasting light and dark colors and quiet and stormy moods while teasing out the shapes of Scriabin’s sometimes-elusive pieces.

And her performance of Prokofiev’s sixth sonata was the stuff of fantasies, aflame throughout with color and rhythm yet keenly controlled. She created an incredible variety of steely tones in the stentorian first movement, larked effortlessly in the second with just that hint of sarcasm that we all love in Prokofiev, ruminated in magnetic quiet tones during the slow movement, and played a blistering finale that launched me out of my seat to cheer. Various social engagements have prevented me from attending Wang’s DMV recitals in the past; the Prokofiev, in particular, convinced me that it’s worthwhile to dis people in order to hear Wang play. (And to think I could have heard it before, at Sixth and I!)

The Yuja Wang concert experience is not all about hearing her play, though; in addition to being a wonderful pianist, she is hot. On Tuesday, she wore a vivid purple dress that had the twin advantages, from the interested viewer’s perspective, of being strapless and short; when she sat to play, she showed a lot of well-toned leg, to which my eyes occasionally wandered throughout the concert. She’s got a pretty face, too, with an adorable toothy smile and a nice contemplative closed-mouthed look. Her record label, Deutsche Grammophon, featured the latter on the cover of her latest CD, along with a decorous dollop of cleavage.

I can’t imagine she’s looked less hot in any of her other recitals, but I didn’t see in a recent bout of Web-wandering for reviews and interviews (Joe Banno came closest). The people, however, have discussed Wang’s attractiveness in many comment sections, often in the kind of juvenile terms I employ in casual conversation but eschew when writing for this highly respectable blog. (Wait, what?) And, in an ironic twist, ever since I mentioned the phrase’s prominence in Google AutoSuggest in that NSO review, the most popular search phrase to reach this blog has been “yuja wang boyfriend.”

The lack of “official” discussion does not surprise me. Using my amazing powers to blindly attribute motives, I have determined that classical folk don’t like to discuss whether performers are hot for the following reasons:

  1. A widespread belief that people who are not as attractive as Wang should be able to have successful solo careers if they can play like Wang. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, but one must also acknowledge that attractive people have had an easier time than less attractive people throughout human history.
  2. Discomfort with the thought that we might focus on the performer, when the important thing is the music being performed and how the performer serves it. You can read more about this here if you are interested. As an audience member, I believe it is possible to appreciate both at once. Really. Our brains are that big.
  3. Unawareness, or unwillingness to acknowledge, that visual presentation affects how we hear music. This baffles me, and I will take it up in more detail later.
  4. Classical music’s incredible discomfort with the body, as opposed to the mind. To some extent, the institutional classical-music dichotomy between pop and classical is the same as the false dichotomy between the body and the mind, as you can see by the fact that pop opponents always choose dance music as the target for their ire (the current fave is Lady Gaga). The idea, as best I can tell, is that the mind is better than the body and thus should be used exclusively to comprehend classical music and its performances. The problem is that it is very difficult to actually enforce such judgments, because we need the body to do stuff for us, like eat and breathe. (The body has also been shown to be a superior dancer.) And if it also likes to throw in a little lust, what’s the harm? The mind is there to stop the body from doing anything stupid like deciding that a gorgeous pianist nailed that scherzo when he or she actually didn’t, right?

So classical music reviews should start decorously mentioning it when the performers are attractive, as I’ve been doing since I started this blog. (Maybe I should start mentioning it indecorously, just to drag the debate forward.) Obviously, when a performer is less attractive, we don’t need to mention that, because when in human discourse is it polite to mention that? But giving the body just a little more of a toehold in our discourse might make our discussions feel more real and immediate in other ways, too. And at the very least, those of us (like me) who have both superficial and profound interests in classical music performers would be getting the info they need.

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall: Which is the Top Genre of Them All? (Hint: None of Them)

July 15, 2010

Last month, which seems so long ago, Greg Sandow hosted some debate over whether classical music really is the best genre in all of music and an island unto itself or not. Greg focused on the question of whether anyone can actually prove classical music’s superiority to all other genres, a question whose answer seems perfectly obvious to me: No.

If you make up some criteria for greatness of a musical genre and then decide that classical music fits those criteria best, you probably selected your with an eye towards getting the answer you wanted. Even if you somehow maintained in your conscious mind a benign neutrality, someone else could make up criteria that would pick another genre with equal validity. Classical music (or the best classical music, anyway) does stuff that no other genre can do, but putting a value like “best” on that…well, you can prove it for yourself, but you can’t prove it for everyone.

But let’s just say you’re someone who will never budge from your position that classical is the king of the hill, cream of the crop, etc. Here I argue that even if your reasoning feels airtight, you should shut up about it in mixed-genre company. Nothing’s going to turn off potential fans of classical music like being told that classical music reigns supreme and unchallenged atop Terpsichore’s pile. Here’s why:

1. It’s insulting to those who like other genres of music. As I type this, I am listening to the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her,” which is a great song. If you were to tell me that I am wasting my time with that pop effluvia when I could be listening to a Brahms concerto, I’d spit in your face. Maybe not even metaphorically! Telling people who love music but not classical music that once they go Bach, they won’t go back is the same as telling people that music in which they have (presumably) a great deal of psychological investment is trash. Most people will not react well to that.

2. It smacks of racism. If you say classical music is the summa of musical achievement, basically what you are saying is that white European males produced all the truly great music in history. Particularly if you are talking to someone who is not a white person, this position may not endear you, or classical music, to your listener.

3. It sets classical music up as something you have to have special skillz to like. Some folks believe this also. For my part, I discovered classical music mostly by hearing my parents play recordings during my childhood, and then going with them to concerts at the University of Maryland back when student tickets were $3. (Ah, halcyon days.) Learning about classical deepened my enjoyment of it, but that was after the bug bit me, not before. Before the bug bites you, acquiring the knowledge just sounds like pointless work, and if you think modern Americans are into pointless work I have a number of extraordinarily valuable collateralized debt obligations to sell you.

Honestly, if I had to choose to listen to only one genre of music for the rest of my life, I’d pick classical. It embraces multitudes and goes places no other genre does. But I don’t have to pick, and so I get to love go-go, hip-hop, jazz, funk, soul, and any other music that grabs my little heart. No one else in this modern world has to pick either, and they’re not going to listen to anyone who tells them that they have to.

So can we get off this? Please? Forever? Instead, I pledge to tell people what I find so exciting about classical music, hopefully in novel and vivid ways, and celebrate performances that generate just that kind of excitement. That’s what it’s all about!

Tell Me Why You’re Making Me Listen To This

February 4, 2010

Anne Midgette has been asking some interesting questions about whether people who subscribe to whole seasons’ worth of classical music concerts should have to listen to music that they don’t like (in most people’s cases, any music without hummable tunes; in my case, Bruckner) as part of the deal, and has gotten a bunch of feisty responses. Apparently, many opera and symphony subscribers simply re-up each year and don’t pay too much attention to what’s on the various programs until they get there and are rewarded for their time and money with a decrepit clangor (at least in their eyes). Me, I tend to opt for the programs that feature music I haven’t heard before, but I’m going to offer a suggestion to appeal to people who don’t anyway:

With regard to subscription symphony concerts, orchestras could do a lot for the acceptance of new music by ensuring that the new music has some sort of connection with the other music on the program and explaining that connection.

If you didn’t know anything about classical music, you’d probably assume that the works on a program would be related somehow, in the same way that art museums curate exhibits composed of works that are related somehow. Of course, an average program’s three non-modern pieces don’t normally have any obvious connection, and when they do, programs composed entirely of works by one composer likely outnumber programs with actual themes. But especially if one piece is an outlier in some way, like if you can’t whistle anything in it, presenters should try to connect it with one or more of the less forbidding pieces on the program. The way things happen now, the modern work becomes an island on which the audience is summarily marooned until it ends; people like to feel like they’ve been brought somewhere, not simply dropped off, and they want to know how they’ll get home again.

A special bonus is that, with a connection spelled out, the exercise of listening becomes a learning experience, and while certainly not everyone is going to enjoy a Pedagogical Night Out, enough people do enjoy just said pedagogy that a significant percentage of the audience will enjoy the active effort of finding the common thread. (Also, people like me would enjoy exploring a program with an actual idea behind it, concept-driven as I am.)

I have read numerous descriptions of the orchestral program planning process, none of which I seem to be able to find on the Internet, and I understand that diverse constraints govern the selection of repertoire for said concerts. Nonetheless, if you are making a special effort to select one work from among the many worthy, unfamiliar modern pieces, you might want to make sure that you can explain to the audience why you are selecting this particular work, and what place it has hanging out with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and whatever other giants it must conquer in the audience’s affections.

This would be easier if more modern music actually sounded like it has a connection to other music in the world, but that’s a different blog post. (And I can’t speak to what opera fans go through when something with a post-1950 musical vocabulary shows up on the date they were saving in hope of a best-loved classic, but I don’t understand much about being an opera fan anyway.)

Go-Go Handel! (Who Did You Call?) Go-Go Handel! (What’s His Name?)

December 16, 2009

When I am not listening to classical music, often I am instead listening to go-go, the dance music native to, and unique to, the DMV. (I will allow Wikipedia to introduce the music to the curious.) “Okay,” you are thinking, “but your blog is called DMV Classical, so why should your readers care about go-go?” Well, the large institutions of classical music seem all aflutter about what to do to increase audience engagement, and I would venture that no audience excels the go-go audience in its engagement with its chosen music.

Despite near-zero levels of corporate investment, and despite advertising so marginal that even the best listings of go-go concerts are in part compilations of flyers posted hither and yon in the DMV, go-go bands pack houses seven nights a week. Though commercial recordings of go-go have never taken off, bootlegs of live shows (aka PA tapes, even when in CD or .zip form) circulate like beneficial viruses. Partisans eagerly debate go-go issues on the Internet and around town. (Just a week ago, on the Red Line, I heard two young women discussing which of their two high schools had the realest go-go concerts.)

Even nonparticipating residents of the DMV are never far from the go-go swing: Driving, biking, or walking around the city (especially south of Florida Ave./U Street and east of 16th), you will hear go-go music coming out of car stereos, cranked-up headphones, apartment windows, and even (further east and south) at backyard barbeques during the summertime, wafting into the breeze. Palaces of culture like the Kennedy Center, I am guessing, desperately seek such ubiquity in the minds of their target audience.

In addition, since go-go has survived without the commercial recording industry, it is exceptionally well-positioned to survive the precipitous decline of the commercial recording industry (which has, of course, affected classical music more than most genres).

Why go-go? In part, because go-go is amazing music. (If you think I’m wrong, please click on this link. How else can Richard Strauss sound so funky?) But classical music is amazing too (each in its own way, people). So we look further, and we quickly find a clue: The go-go concert experience, the rock of go-go’s continued vitality and viability, encourages and demands — indeed, could not survive without — the enthusiastic participation of the audience. This contrasts strongly with classical concerts, in which the audience often seems to be superfluous to the music-making.

Admittedly, often one will read quotes from classical musicians indicating that the crowd response shapes their performances. Here’s one from Hilary Hahn that I’m including just because I knew where to find it, not because it mentions Twitter and I’m courting Internet memes:

The problem [with tweeting during performances] is that acoustic performers rely on the audience’s attention and focus and can tell when the audience isn’t mentally present. Your listening is part of our interpretive process. If you’re not really listening, we’re not getting the feedback of energy from the hall, and then we might as well be practicing for a bunch of people peering in the window. It’s just not as interesting when the cycle of interpretation is broken.

I believe her, but how the hell can I, as an audience member, tell how the quality and intensity of our attention shapes Hahn’s interpretation? If I stare at her really hard and wish for it, will she use just a little more portamento? Contrast that with, say, a Chuck Brown concert, in which he always takes the time to sing the following, over a beat, to the audience:

Thank you so much for coming out tonight
Tell you nothin’ but the truth, you’re lookin’ outta sight
Show the world what you got, this is your spot
Do it how you wanna because we love you a lot

I’ve been to Hilary Hahn concerts, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t love me a lot! And such love is shown to go-go audiences because it must be given in return — if the audience does not participate in the call-and-response, the whole show sounds totally stupid, like a one-sided dialogue. In fact, engaging in popular calls-and-responses (like “Hold up!” “WAIT A MINUTE!”) is a surefire way to goose a lackluster show, because the audience knows and loves these chants and expects to participate in them.

But there’s more! If being loved and chanting does not meet your need for audience interaction, you can pass to the stage a slip of paper with the names of people in the audience who are celebrating a birthday. The talker will read these names and wish them a happy birthday. You can also make requests through said slips of paper. If you are a frequent attendee at a certain group’s shows, the talker will likely single you out for recognition during a percussion break (“14th Street Crew!”). Here’s a video in which a crankin’ go-go band stops the concert to warn someone that his Impala is illegally parked and will be towed. This is a kind of concern for the customer that classical performers rarely, if ever, show.

You are probably saying to yourself: “But Andrew, no classical concert could ever bring the audience into the music-making experience the way go-go does, with everyone knowing the words and hitting their cues!” And every December, classical music proves you wrong, because this is the one time of year that audiences get to help perform the most popular choral masterpiece known to English-speaking humans: the Messiah.

At the Kennedy Center’s annual Messiah sing-along, for example, people begin forming lines hours before the event, eager to pile into the Concert Hall and join a couple thousand others in singing their hearts out. Past participants have told me of people being turned away at the door. If it’s not the single most popular thing the Kennedy Center does all year, it’s certainly a strong candidate.

Hmmm.

Posting is about to get super-sparse for a couple weeks, so I’m going to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday season, including those of you who are already celebrating your specific holiday and those of you who (like me) are mainly celebrating the extra paid holidays coming up. Your attention is my gift (really! I mean it!). Thanks for reading.

We’re Just Incompatible: Me and the National Gallery

December 1, 2009

The concert of music by Fred Lehrdal, John Corigliano, and James (not Troy) Aikman at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday was probably every bit as good listening as Anne Midgette made it sound in the Post Magazine. And it’s free, so no excuse not to attend, in theory. And yet I wrote this blog entry instead of being at the concert. (Then I had to find time to edit it, which explains why it’s only being posted today.) Why?

For me, the National Gallery’s presentation of its admirable series of free concerts makes them virtually unattendable in reality. Here’s why:

  • The time is unmanageable. The concerts are held at 6:30 pm on Sunday nights, and you normally need to get there at least an hour early to get a reasonable seat, since no tickets are provided. So you can either eat dinner at 4:30 pm or 8:30 pm. Neither of those are times I normally eat dinner. 8:30 seems more reasonable, except that after intermission all I would be able to think about would be dinner, plus it’s Sunday night so you would pretty much have to go to bed immediately after dinner to get up for the work week. My normal solution is to head to Gallery Place and have a burrito at Chipotle first, which shaves a few minutes, but what if you wanted to have a civilized sit-down dinner with another individual? Probably not everyone else has to eat on a schedule like I do, but if you do, it’s really hard to make the NGOA concerts fit that schedule.
  • The West Garden Court’s acoustics are terrible. Tonight’s concert is being held as I type this in the East Gallery Auditorium, which fulfills the normal classical concert space expectations of being rectangular and enclosed with a big bank of seats in front of a stage. Normally, NGOA concerts are held in the West Garden Court, a beautiful space and a horrible place in which to listen to a concert. The marble from which the space is constructed naturally produces the most profound resonant effect you could ever dream of, and the high ceilings make sure that any echoing noise will travel a good long while before coming back down to audience level, resulting in a great blurring effect that has zapped many a concert of its sharpness and general poise.
  • Also the West Garden Court provides remarkably few good seats. A big fountain takes up the center of the space, ringed by a walkway, with some garden areas (truth in advertising!) surrounding the walkway while allowing pedestrian passage to the fountain. Beyond the garden areas is a final rectangular margin of unobstructed marble. On one of these last rectangular sections sit the performers, facing…the fountain. So the best possible seats acoustically (at least in a normal hall) would actually be in the drink. But you might want to mitigate the resonant effects by sitting up close, in which case you would have to get in front of the stampede to the remarkably few seats in the walkway leading from the rectangular margin to the fountain. All the other seats obstruct one’s view of at least half of the stage, not to mention obstructing the hearing of at least half the notes. The seats are also of the temporary folding plastic kind and not especially kind to those with posterior amplitude.

One of the themes of my various ponderings about classical music is that, on the whole, presenters and performers ignore the body to pitch things solely to the mind. The NGOA’s selection of performers and repertoire have frequently impressed me, not to mention the generally top-notch program notes; I just can’t figure out how to enjoy it while sitting, either prematurely full of food or direly empty of food, in one of the narrow, mislocated seats in the place where the concerts are most often held. I’m sure that there are all sorts of constraints on the NGOA experience of which I am unaware and that they are doing the best they can within those constraints. But it is a shame.

Am I completely full of it, or is this concert series as annoying to others as it is to me? Or are there other concert series with which you find yourselves incompatible?

Rock Out With Your Bach Out

November 7, 2009

Besides putting these posts up for the general Internet to see, I also call attention to them on Facebook, because us youngish people don’t surf the regular Web anymore and need to have stuff pointed out to us. In response to the BSO review below, Maura Lafferty, who blogs engagingly at La ci darem la mano about the concert experience and other stuff, wrote the following on Facebook:

i love that you want to just rock the hell out to scheherazade, because that’s how i feel every time i go to a concert. down side is that live shows are better than recordings for rocking out purposes. solution? make orchestra concerts more like rock concerts.

A goal shared by many, and one whose spirit I commend. And yet, in execution, I think some problems would arise. Specifically with regard to me and Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, I just played the last movement of Scheherazade here in my apartment, and I’m pretty sure no one wants to see me jump around and punch the air like that for ten minutes. I’m actually sweating, and my pants began to fall down several times due to the sheer force of my gyrations and exertions. Canny classical presenters would encourage me to do that and then get everyone else in the hall to pay to have me ejected. What’s fun for me would not be fun for everyone, is what I’m saying.

For another thing, orchestral concerts, and classical concerts in general, have some decided advantages over rock concerts, even granting that problems associated with people talking over the Adagio could be smoothed somewhat by discreet amplification. Two of the more memorable concerts I have attended this year were the Mosaiques Quartet at the Library of Congress and the Wu-Tang Clan at the 9:30 Club. (It’s just a special bonus that the Wu-Tang Clan seems to be an emerging meme on this blog.) As an imaginative exercise, let us see what the Mosaiques concert would have been like had it been almost exactly like the Wu-Tang concert:

  1. The concert would have been listed as beginning at 8, but the actual playing of music would not have started until 9. In the meantime, the sound system would play recordings by various other string quartets, and I would drink Yuengling.
  2. At 9, a quartet would begin playing, but it would not be the Mosaiques; rather, it would be composed of their less talented homies from Vienna. They would play in a style similar but distinctly inferior to that of the Mosaiques.
  3. Then more waiting. The audience would be getting tired of standing. I would check my watch repeatedly and make nervous comments about how many hours of string quartet recordings the Library of Congress had on hand. Also, more Yuengling.
  4. Occasionally, Christophe Coin would emerge from the wings and look stonily at the crowd, which would applaud in an effort to gain his or her acknowledgment. None would be forthcoming.
  5. A hush would come over the crowd as someone began setting up the music stands and laying out the sheet music.
  6. That process would take about a half-hour, somehow. Additional Yuengling.
  7. Finally, the Mosaiques Quartet would come out and begin playing Haydn. Well, sort of. It turns out Anita Mitterer would have decided not to come on the tour. One of the less talented homies from earlier would play her part. Eventually, the Mosaiques would get tired of the substitution, and Andrea Bischof would simply play both Mitterer’s part and her own, with occasionally bizarre results. (Yes, I was there when the Wu, without Method Man, performed the song “Method Man,” which as you might guess prominently features Method Man in normal circumstances.)
  8. The quartet would frequently ask the crowd whether it enjoyed that [redacted 13-letter gerund] real Classical music, capital C, straight uncut raw dope. They would also give much love to D.C., generally, while asserting the primacy of Vienna as the spot where the real grimy period-instrument performers go to work. (The Mosaiques, to my knowledge, do not have a dead former member, so I cannot work in all the Ol’ Dirty Bastard discussion, but trust me: there was a bunch of that too.)
  9. Despite all that, the Mosaiques would deliver some pretty awesome performances. Then someone would announce that there would be an after-party at the 18th Amendment, and a freestyle session would begin. (Note: I would pay a great deal of money to hear the Mosaiques Quartet in an actual freestyle session.) But eventually, the Mosaiques would retreat towards the wings of the stage, leaving the spotlight for the less talented homies from earlier. These less talented homies would really stink up the joint, so much so that Erich Höbarth would start laughing at them in full view of the audience. Then the lights would come up.
  10. The performance having lasted well after the Metro stopped running, I would have to walk over to 7th Street to catch the 70 bus home, a journey that would take 5 million years in subjective time.

So clearly we don’t want classical concerts to be too much like pop concerts, although the dearth of Yuengling at classical concerts should be a concern to presenters everywhere. (I don’t like wine, dammit!) What we want is for classical concerts to have some of the fire of pop concerts, for Robert Spano and the BSO to be able to whirl up the climax of Scheherazade’s shipwreck and feed off the energy of the audience at the same time as they stoke it, the same way Raekwon got fired up by our ecstatic screams and blasted through “C.R.E.A.M.” And for me to be able to move a little bit in my seat, at least, and for others to move their bodies too. I have some inchoate thoughts on why classical concerts, by and large, don’t do that; I’ll try to whip them into coherence in the next post in this series.

(Note: You, too, can totally be my friend on Facebook, but I have to warn you that I don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about classical music on there, other than to promote this blog.)

No, I’m Not a Musician. Now Shut Up.

July 28, 2009

I went to the Balmer Symphony’s concert at Strathmore on June 6, the one featuring Hilary Hahn playing the concerto Jennifer Higdon wrote for her and Marin Alsop conducting, because J-Higgy’s music consistently moves me, Hahn  always has something interesting to say, Alsop excels as an advocate for contemporary music she likes, and I was able to buy an eighth-row seat to soak it all in. At the end of the violin concerto, with all three women out front taking their bows, emotion moved me sufficiently to stand and applaud.

When I sat back down, to gather my program and whatnot for intermission, the gentleman next to me said, smiling, “You must have some connection with someone up there on stage.”

A little taken aback, I paused and said, “No, I just really like music.” And then, sniffing condescension, I launched into a few compound-complex sentences about Alsop and the advocacy mentioned earlier, which made him shy away and head for the can (or wherever people hide from people who took a conversational cue incorrectly).

This was the most extreme of a type of remark I hear often as a single, young (for a classical fan), male concertgoer, which normally comes out as “Are you a musician?” (Though one other memorable time, I was asked, “Are you a composer?” After my negative response, the asker commented, “There sure are a lot of composers here,” the only response to which I could think of was “Well, I’m not one of them.”) The question my interlocutors actually want to ask is “What the hell are you doing here?” And, based on the forms the question takes, I’m guessing the interlocutors don’t think music itself is enough of a draw.  (Which is sad in and of itself, but that’s another complaint.)

As I typed the last paragraph, I heard the voices of my parents in my head, telling me “Those people are just trying to be pleasant and make conversation with someone who’s alone.” Well, first thing, the fact that I’m alone does not mean that I am starved for conversation. But granting our society’s deep-rooted prejudice against introversion, the fact remains that, most of the time, I would be perfectly happy to have an at-concert conversation about the concert. (For an example, check out the awesome convo I had at the last concert I went to, which reminded me to write about this.) I’m not sure why half of the elderly couple next to me wants my background info instead of talking about what’s in the foreground.

Perhaps I could stop these questions by coming to more concerts with someone else, but the small pool of friends I have who enjoy classical music and the difficulty of convincing non-fans that you really need to hear these specific people play 200-year-old music mean that’s not going to happen. So, people who are thinking about asking single-looking people sitting next to them whether they are musicians, try asking about the concert instead. Unless you happen to be a single young woman, in which case you can ask me whatever you want.


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