Saturday, November 06, 2004

At the Symphony

At a San Francisco Symphony concert a few weeks ago, I got to thinking about audiences, musicians, and composers. (Read the review of that concert here.)

Let's start with composers and audiences. This concert featured the SFS premiere of John Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music, a heroically-scaled, exciting, and deeply moving work. Adams lives in Berkeley, and so he was on hand for the concert. He spoke about himself and the piece, and the Symphony played musical examples.

This is a great way to set up the audience to listen carefully to the music, and it's especially useful and important when it's new music. Not that Adams is especially difficult, but every audience contains people who are resistant to new or 20th century music. At the SFS, music director Michael Tilson Thomas introduces music from the podium fairly often. He's articulate and charming and knows how to sell music to an audience.

But there was a missed opportunity at the Adams concert - a chance to get feedback from the audience. This could be done in so many different ways. There must be a room at Davies where audience members could meet with the composer, conductor, and some of the orchestra musicians during the intermission or after the concert. Speight Jenkins, general manager of the Seattle Opera, is available for questions and discussion after almost every one of their performances.

The programs might contain feedback forms on which the audience could ask questions - the composer, conductor, or an orchestra member could answer these at the end of the concert. I can just imagine some of the questions: "Principal Flutist, how did you learn that opening solo and how do you stay in tune with the first oboe?" "Mr. Conductor, how the heck do you keep track of where you are?" "Mr. Composer, do you use the music-editing program Sibelius?" "Mr. Composer, why does your music hurt my ears?" "Ms. Violinist, how come you scowled all the way through? Don't you like that piece?" (I'll come back to that last question in a bit.)

Greg Sandow and the Pittsburgh Symphony have started what sounds like a great program to get the audience to talk back. Believe it or not, I was thinking about this subject before Greg's post appeared. So perhaps this subject is in the air just now.

Then again, there was the audience itself. Some of its members didn't know how to behave. I heard quiet chatter here and there right up to - and even past - the first downbeat of the first two movements of the Adams. This happens all the time at the opera, where I once heard talk well into the overture to Eugene Onegin. It's as if people think they're in their livings rooms watching a DVD. They can't distinguish between a formal and informal occasion any more. I've come to believe that the "Please turn off all cell phones, pagers, and watch alarms" announcements at the symphony and opera need to include "and please do not talk once the lights go down and the conductor comes out."

I spent some time looking around at the audience during the Adams. It's a dynamic piece; there are places in it where I can imagine getting up and dancing, if only there were a dance floor handy. I respond physically to that kind of music and sometimes move in time to it. I smile a lot when I'm enjoying a piece. I know the look on my face changes constantly in relation to what I'm hearing.

Everyone I could see in the audience looked serious, very, very serious. I'm not sure if they were simply reacting very differently to the Adams than I was, or if they were concentrating hard to take in a new work or if they just think they should not be displaying pleasure or other emotions openly while listening to "serious" music. I don't understand this - music is a sensual pleasure, from the sheer beauty of much of what we hear to the emotions it triggers in us to how we react to the sheer physical force of a giant orchestra.

But maybe they were taking their cues from the orchestra. From where I sat, it looked as though conductor Alan Gilbert was having a great time. He danced all over the podium and swayed constantly with the beat. Of the orchestra members I could see, only principal violinist Geraldine Walther and associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick, who played first chair in the Adams, looked as if they were having fun. Everyone else looked just like the audience - very serious and very, very focussed on counting and playing a complex new piece. (Walther and Wyrick always look as if they're enjoying themselves!)

I have to wonder if this contributes to the hard sell of classical music to a new audience. Rock, jazz, and pop musicians get to move; they get to dance. No one thinks it's odd if a jazz pianist sings along with her playing, but Glenn Gould's moaning or Toscanini's singing along on his opera recordings are considered by many to be bad form or even mildly embarrassing. But I can't imagine that anyone goes into playing music of any kind for a living unless they love the music and act of playing. I wish more of them would show that love publicly. After all, there I am having a good time at the symphony. Musicians get to have fun too.


Jessica said...

Hi Lisa! Congratulations on the new blog! I'll put your link up on my site directly.

I have to tell you something about playing the music of John Adams that I know because my husband is a violinist in one of London's top orchestras. Can you imagine an Olympic athlete or similar, faced with a massive course of hurdle leaping, actually SMILING as he carries out his task? Can you imagine stockbrokers, trying to getting their deals clinched, beaming and waving to their colleagues as they do so? Can you imagine any highly skilled professional prioritising a pretty smile while they do a particularly difficult job?

If you look at a page of John Adams, what you see is repetition after repetition after repetition - but small differences creep in gradually, so it is absolutely vital that you don't lose your place. It goes fast. Very fast. And it is extremely confusing to the eye, especially if under pressure to get it right in front of 2000 people. Sure, musicians become musicians because they love music, but sometimes it's bloody difficult to play (pardon my French) and you have to concentrate like nobody's business just to get through it in one piece.

I don't believe that many non-musicians have the faintest idea how demanding and highly skilled a profession this is. These people go through a training that is every bit as arduous as studying law or Egyptology. Seriously. So we shouldn't mislead the audience by saying that the performers should try to look happy while they're working. It would be wonderful if they could, but they can't, and for a very sensible reason. Especially in John Adams.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi, Jessica!

Yes, I have seen John Adams scores - Boosey & Hawkes lent me a copy of "Naive & Sentimental Music," for example. You're right; it's extremely difficult to play. I ought to have noted that the orchestra looked just as serious during the other piece on the concert: the Beethoven violin concerto, which isn't nearly as technically demanding.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I want to add a few things to my response to Jessica.

First, point taken about the physical difficulty of orchestral playing: the musicians typically rehearse, practice, and perform for what? 30 to 60 hours a week, in the orchestra and on their own? It's demanding and wearing work; those of us outside the orchestra world mostly hear about just how hard it is on the body when something goes very wrong, such as with Leon Fleischer and Gary Graffman. Jessica, did you see the NY Times article a few years back about the SF Symphony violist who plays an ergonomic viola? He felt like something of a pariah, or was treated as one by some of the other musicians, because it Just Wasn't Done to talk about the wear and tear. (The article ran on August 4, 1997, by the way; it's now in the Times's paid archive.)

Second, I'm not asking for smiles. I'm asking for, if possible, less grimness. For one thing, I know from personal experience that you can't smile while you're playing a woodwind or brass instrument. %^) As I mentioned, a couple of the SFS players always look engaged and focussed and, well, into what they're doing. They're not grinning ear to ear. It's more a matter of a certain physical looseness or relaxation that extends to their faces - they don't look tense or on edge. (I realize that counting an Adams piece could, indeed, put one on edge.)

I know from my own experience as a chorister and flutist, and more recently as a martial artist, that presentation is a significant part of putting over a piece of music or making a jujitsu technique work. What I'm trying to suggest is that the mood of an orchestra (or any group of performers) communicates with the audience right along with the music. Is there any way to use this to help put the music across to the audience?

Scott said...

Meeting with musicians is always a good idea for orchestras. On Halloween I took my daughter to a family concert of the Indianapolis Symphony. Afterwards, the conductor and the MC (who is also the english horn/3rd oboist) answered questions from interested audience members. The kids asked some great questions, along the lines of your suggestions. My four-year-old was happy just to listen and absorb.

As for demonstrating an interest in the music, it is a cultural thing with orchestras that really should change, but it will be hard. Young players are so nervous about losing their job that they can't relax and enjoy things. Old players often lose enthusiasm about playing the same pieces over and over. These are generalizations, and there are great performers out there that really engage the audience with their enthusiasm. But there should be more.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi, Steve, and thanks for the comments. I've linked to your blog, too!

MikeZ said...

I've just wandered in from a link at "Reflections in d minor". I'm a classical music consumer since about age 6. (And I heard the SF Symphony back in the 50s.)

Do you remember Leonard Bernstein's TV shows on music? There's something that should be re-run (or at least distributed on CD (is it?)), becuse there's a whole new generation to communicate with. Wynton Marsalis does make a start, but it's not the same.

About audiences: I stopped going to local ballets (usually the Nutcracker) after hearing the rooting section for one of the ensemble hoot and holler at his walk-on. One's Christian charity has its limits.

I don't know if a part-by-part runthrough (as they sometimes do for "Young Person's Guide" would help). It would certainly make the concert longer.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi, Mike!

Bernstein's Young People's Concerts and Harvard lectures are all available on DVD, so younger generations can still see and hear him.