Sunday, January 27, 2008


A Winter Concert

I've just returned home from watching Alisa Weilerstein and the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra play the Dvorak Cello Concerto in B-minor. The night was crystal clear and very cold (-15 F) with sharp biting winds whipping through the streets of downtown Anchorage as we cautiously made our way along several blocks of icy sidewalks from our hotel to the Atwood Concert Hall of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. The weather didn't deter a shivering crowd of almost 2,000 from warming up to a memorable musical evening.

Guest conductor Jung-Ho Pak presented a brief pre-concert lecture about the three pieces - Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C-minor, Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C-major and Dvorak. Pak is a charismatic and enthusiastic lecturer - and an energetic conductor who uses his entire body as he dips, sways, reaches out with both hands and then seems to physically pull the sound out of the orchestra - at least that's what we witnessed during the first half of the program. In the second half, all eyes were on Alisa as she calmly sat beside the conductor, waiting while the orchestra played the rich, extended introduction of the first movement.

Dvorak's Cello Concerto is my favorite piece for the cello. I've listened to many different performances on CDs (and on Youtube - see today's posts by Rich Rodriguez for a version by Pierre Fournier), and I know what to expect as the cello finally weighs in, yet each time I am caught by the intensity as the bow cuts into the strings. Weilerstein's presentation was up to the challenge. She holds her cello high, with the scroll in front of and well above her head, and her bow flies all over the strings. Her fingering appeared (from the distance of the mezzanine) to be confident and accurate. She is every bit as good as promised, producing a rich, romantic sound; passionate and energetic.

The orchestra, under Pak's direction was also energized. Maybe a little too much. If I have any criticism at all, it was that the orchestra tended to overpower the cello when they all played together - especially the horns. The intense, large sound projected by the cello at the beginning seemed to diminish by the end of the first movement and the start of the second. I'm guessing that Pak realized this and worked to bring them back into balance because the finish of the second movement and most of the third sounded much better.

Three "events" marred this otherwise fantastic evening. Someone two rows behind me ate an awful lot of candy last night, judging from the amount of cellophane that they unwrapped from each piece. I guess they figured that if they opened it very slo-o-owly it wouldn't make as much noise... instead, each separate little crackle rang out, one-by-one. Why can't people wait for intermission (or at least until the end of the movement)?

Then there was the enthusiastic "me-firster" who almost leapt from his seat with shouts of bravo and frenzied clapping - just as the second movement closed. His wife hurriedly grabbed his arm and pulled him back down. Someone even hissed out: "not yet!" I am actually in favor of some applause between movements, and I wish it were more commonly accepted, but this was a lot more than that.

But worst of all and the most pathetic, was the old woman who settled in about a half dozen seats away from us in our row. She had arrived alone, with a cluster of fur coats, purses, and a few other bags, and then pulled out her cellphone and proceeded to talk to someone all the way through the concertmasters' tuning. Only after the usher turned and whispered to her did she turn it off and quiet down. This lasted until midway into the first movement when she began to mutter to herself and started to pull out her cellphone again. Someone shushed her, and she apologized and calmed down for a while, but about halfway through the second movement, as the cello finished playing a slow descending pianissimo phrase, she moaned and then called out, loudly, "Oh Cleo!" More shushes followed... By the third movement, an usher had moved to sit beside her, ready to put a hand on her arm to calm her down, and/or bring her back to reality.

I guess if we expect a perfect listening environment, we can invest in a top-of-the-line sound system with a pair of high-quality headphones. I do enjoy my music that way, and I do have to remind myself that attending concerts means that there will be others in the audience who cough and sneeze and make various shuffling noises. I sympathized with the dementia (tourettes?) person nearby, and hoped she was able at least to enjoy what she heard even if she did detract from the listening pleasure of those around her. I even have a small bit of sympathy for the poor guy who jumped up so enthusiastically after the second movement (and a whole lot more sympathy for his extremely embarrassed wife). But there ought to be a special place in hell for that candy-unwrapper... Oh well, at least no babies cried and no cellphones rang.

Finally, I guess I probably don't get out enough lately, because I don't understand why they need a sign language interpreter at a concert.

Jung-Ho Pak is the new conductor of the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra! This season he and the former conductor, Royston Nash, are sharing the concert season. I have not seen him conduct yet, but most people are very enthusiastic about him, saying he has much higher standards for the orchestra, makes them play better, inspires them, etc. He is auditioning all members of the orchestra, even those who have been there for years. (Maybe especially those who have been there for years....)

I talked to another conductor recently who said his orchestra has been criticized for "moving too much," but he thinks you can't express the music without moving. I haven't heard them yet either, but hope to soon.

Great review!
Hi Maricello.

I wondered if you'd seen Jung-Ho Pak conduct yet. You're in for a treat. He's also quite passionate about advocating various musical outreach efforts.

Hmmm... He'd be a great interview for your local paper. If you do ever talk to him, tell him he has at least one new fan in Alaska. :)
If this is you'r favorite cello piece you should definitely listen to Pieter Wispelwey's most recent recording with the Budapest GFestival Orchestra. It is the most original performance I 've heard in a long time.

As far as applauding between movements goes, that is most annoying. For the performers on stage it takes away part of their concentration en attention. Especially if it's an applause because you're supposed to applaud. A spontaneous appause now and then is okay, but not all the time. But in most cases it's better to save you're applause for the end of the entire piece.
Glad to hear you enjoyed the concert, even with the disruptions. Noise doesn't bother me too much except for the cellophane thing, in which case I'm prone to violence. Anyway, I just stumbled across this YouTube clone and I'm wondering if you've seen it:

It has HD video! Here's a great clip of the Bach 5th Suite Prelude:'s-Bach-II
Great review! I haven't been to a professional orchestra's concert in a while... I'd forgotten how fun they are.

I'm normally not too lenient towards over-eager applauders, but I still feel sorry for the poor man who jumped up after the 2nd movement! I'm sure he probably thought it was the end... ;-)

Glad you had fun!
Guanco, I will certainly give Jung-Ho Pak your regards if/when I see him!

BTW, my Triple Concerto review is finally online. There was a little snafu last week and none of the stories from Friday's paper made it.(The paper is published twice a week.)

The Triple Concerto has three movements, but the 3rd follows the 2nd with no pause (one of the big moments for the cello). After the first movement, not only did the audience applaud, but the conductor and soloists acknowledged the applause. I have not seen that happen before.
Did you see this article in the NY Times?

Published: January 8, 2008

Concertgoers like you and me have become part police officer, part public offender. We prosecute the shuffled foot or rattled program, the errant whisper or misplaced cough. We tense at the end of a movement, fearful that one of the unwashed will begin to clap, bringing shame on us all. How serious we look, and how absurd we are.

When Chopin played his E minor Piano Concerto in Warsaw in 1830, other pieces were inserted between the first two movements.

“Silence is not what we artists want,” Kenneth Hamilton quotes Beethoven in “After the Golden Age,” a detailed reflection on concert behavior in the 19th and early 20th centuries published recently by Oxford University Press. “We want applause.”

George Bernard Shaw, wearing his music critic’s hat, wrote that the silence at a London performance of Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony represented not rapt attention but audience distaste. Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and virtuosos like them would have been offended had listeners not clapped between movements, although in Beethoven’s case the point is moot, given that hardly anybody played more than one movement of a Beethoven sonata at a time.

I owe this information, along with most of the anecdotes that follow, to Mr. Hamilton’s delightful book, which you should read. People, he writes, also clapped while the music was going on. When Chopin played his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” with orchestra, the audience bestowed its showstopping approval after every variation. As late as 1920, a Berlin audience was applauding Ferruccio Busoni in the middle of “La Campanella.”

Liszt, the composer of that piece, was observed in dignified old age, yelling bravos from the audience as Anton Rubinstein played Mozart’s A minor Rondo. Hans von Bülow boasted to his students that his performance in the first-movement cadenza of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto regularly brought down the house, no matter that the movement wasn’t over.

In condemning modern recitals as canned, without spontaneity, literal and deadened by solemnity, Mr. Hamilton sometimes overstates the case. In the best of circumstances silence during a good performance becomes something palpable, not just an absence of noise. Involved audiences can shout approval without making a sound.

In describing the hypocrisies of “golden age” pursuers and other nostalgia freaks, on the other hand, he has a point. If music is to go back to original instruments and original performance practices, it has to acknowledge original audiences too.

Elias Canetti’s 1960 book “Crowds and Power” offers the best metaphor for modern concerts: the Roman Catholic Mass. Worshipers accept instructions from an executive operating from a raised platform at the front. They speak when spoken to and otherwise shut up. Mr. Hamilton attributes a lot of this recently acquired holiness to the recording age, but I think it has more to do with Germanic art’s taking itself deadly seriously. Every Mozart sonata is like Wagner’s “Parsifal,” and listeners should get down on their knees.

Audience participation was taken for granted in the 1840s. The pianist Alexander Dreyschock was criticized for playing “so loud that it made it difficult for the ladies to talk,” Mr. Hamilton writes. Today’s listeners, still eager to make themselves known, have been reduced to subversive acts in a fascistic society. When they are not interested, they cough. Opera goers long to be the first to be heard as the curtain falls. Anticipating the final cadences in Donizetti doesn’t make much difference. In “Parsifal” it is a disaster, and a frequent one.

Concerts were different back then. Liszt could get away with the radical idea of “one man, one recital,” but musical events were usually variety shows in the manner of vaudeville. The star pianist or violinist was just an occasionally recurring act in a parade of singers, orchestra players, quartets and trios. When Liszt did his solo acts, there was none of the march-on, march-off stage ritual of today. Liszt greeted patrons at the door, mingled in the audience and schmoozed with friend and stranger alike.

Whole recitals also took place between acts of an opera or movements of a symphony. When Chopin played his E minor Piano Concerto in Warsaw in 1830, other pieces were inserted between the first two movements. Perhaps the most celebrated such interruption was at the 1806 premiere of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Vienna, where the soloist thrilled listeners by playing his violin upside down and on one string.

Memorization was evidently as much prized in the 1800s as it is now, though people like Chopin and Beethoven thought that playing with scores increased accountability. Virtuosos like Anton Rubinstein learned by heart but frequently forgot what they had memorized. I once heard Arthur Rubinstein become lost in Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,” simply diddling idly on the piano for a while before remembering what came next.

No one seemed to mind mistakes. If Liszt landed on a wrong note, he would treat it as a modulation, inventing a new passage on the spot. The idea of “Werktreue,” or honoring what the score says, was a weaker argument in the 19th century. Bülow told pupils that the occasionally planted clinker showed audiences how hard the piece at hand was.

My favorite music criticism is from a German on Brahms’s playing his own B flat Piano Concerto. “Brahms did not play the right notes,” he wrote, “but he played like a man who knew what the right notes were.”

There are still flickers of audience involvement in concerts, but so brainwashed are we by prevailing decorum that they make us nervous. Once in Havana I became troubled by two men in front of me talking excitedly during a performance of a Liszt piano concerto until I realized they were arguing the interpretation blow by blow.

Another time, late on a Spanish evening many years ago, I heard a village band competition at the bullring in Valencia. The playing was astonishing, and as a particular performance gradually took hold of the audience, low hums of approval would grow into something approaching wordless roars. It was the most profound concert experience of my life.
Fascinating article, Marisa. Thanks for posting it here. He makes some good points and offers some interesting insights. I've seen similar descriptions of 18th and 19th century audiences.

Still, it's almost as if these writers are justifying (even encouraging) more audience misbehavior today, just because they have concluded that it was "acceptable" back then. But, I would bet plenty of people in those long-ago audiences did not appreciate the chaos.

Finally, I take exception to Mr. Holland's depiction of today's "concertgoer": I do not feel too "serious" or at all "absurd" for expecting a quiet, respectful, and well-behaved audience [i.e. "decorum"] after shelling out more than $100 to attend a concert.

There are so many other entertainment opportunities these days that if people don't want to behave properly during a wonderful live musical concert, let them stay home and play video games.
During the Beethoven symphony in the first half of Saturday's concert, the conductor, Mr. Pak, did turn slightly and briefly acknowledge the smattering of applause after the first movement. This would be a good topic for your future interview with him, Maricello.
I go to a lot of different concerts (I work at a big arts centre), both classical music, contemporary classical, dance, literature readings etc etc and I think the audience silence concept is an interesting one. You can really feel the difference between bored silence and rapt attention silence.

I work on programmes, and I had a discussion with a coworker about whether we should put something like 'Please keep coughing to a minimum as this performance is being recorded' on the programme - I disagreed saying it sounded a bit rude as most people try their best to keep quiet anyway don't they? My coworker laughed and said she didn't agree, it was only because I'm a musician she said, and think sensitively about the noise I might make - lots of people don't seem to understand.

Conductors and musicians seem to all feel differently about clapping and making noise in between movements. I've seen conductors turn around and shush people, I've seen some graciously acknowledge it. I watched the violinist Nicola Benedetti shake her head and look very agitated when someone started clapping at the wrong moment in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - she clearly found it distracting.

Cellophane unwrappers deserve a quick blow to the back of the head. I think it's perfectly acceptable to lean forward and say something quietly - a few quiet words is better than listening to that horrible crackling for the next 20 minutes.

But the worst offense I've ever seen was the reopening concert of the Royal Festival Hall last summer. Three or four bars into The Rite of Spring and someone's mobile phone went off. Vladimir Jurowski stopped the London Philharmonic Orchestra and glared up at the box where it came from, shook his head and restarted the piece. The poor bassoonist playing that brutal solo twice!
There are ALWAYS those candy/cough drop people. I simply don't understand it. Can't they wait, or clear their throat or something?
I attended a concert yesterday, not classical, but a 4-person folk band (violin, mandolin, guitar, string bass). When the standard "please silence your cell phones" announcement was made, the guitarist took out his own cell phone and turned it off, causing much amusement.
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