Posted tagged ‘the concert experience’

Your Eyes Leakin’, You Ain’t Speakin’

May 6, 2010

Is crying allowed at classical concerts? Not grieving-relative wailing, obviously, but a few tears rolling down the cheek, and maybe a sharp, low intake of breath? A couple weeks ago I went to a concert by my homies the Daedalus Quartet and realized I was worried about whether I would cry while they played Beethoven’s Op. 127. (The music that makes me cry sometimes when I play it at home: late Beethoven, the Bach D minor Chaconne, late Schubert piano sonatas…that’s about it. I’m not counting music that chokes me up; the waterworks must actually start up.)

Crying at a classical concert, in which the musicians presumably strive to move you, should be a little different than regular crying in public. But for some reason the thought of crying at a classical concert makes me feel even more cringingly vulnerable than just crying in a park. At least when you cry in a park, people speculate on the reason, and maybe make up something respectable. But if I were to cry at a classical concert, everyone would know why. There’s something really embarrassing there, at least for me, a male socialized according to the normal pattern. And in considering the Daedalus concert, I realized that I’ve occasionally avoided otherwise interesting concerts because I was worried about whether I’d be able to maintain a dry-faced state as an audience member.

In the event, Op. 127 didn’t jar loose any saltwater, although I had a couple sharp intakes of breath, and a weird spine-melting feeling when the Daedalus made a fleet, icy, glassine sound during the always-odd coda to the finale — I had to make an effort to sit up. (That would have been tough to explain to my seat-neighbors!) But what do you think — is crying like coughing, or more acceptable? What if you saw your neighbor’s ocular precipitation — would you say anything, or just let it flow? (Please, please, please say the latter.) And (if you’re a little more comfortable with the whole idea than I am) what music sometimes puts something in your eyes?


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.


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.

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.