We’re Just Incompatible: Me and the National Gallery

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?

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2 Comments on “We’re Just Incompatible: Me and the National Gallery”

  1. Tim Page Says:

    Hi Andrew. I had the same problems with the Gallery concerts and attended them very rarely, usually when the program was particularly good. Beautiful as it is, it’s simply not a concert space.

    Hope you are well. You’re such a splendid critic.

  2. Clayton Says:

    I’ve been aware of the free concerts at NGA and impressed by the artists on the roster for many years, but I’ve never been to a performance there yet. I’ve often wandered through the courts where the concerts are held, and my reaction is something like, “What are they thinking?” Your post spells out very well what’s wrong with the time and space.


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