A perplexing and disappointing concert experience

I went to a concert of a well-known contemporary music ensemble whose biography promised to be “dedicated to the proposition that music is an experience.” New masterpieces of our time, the writer confidently stated, are “beautiful, sensuous, challenging, delightful, provocative, and a unique joy.”  I’m curmudgeonly enough to find this sort of writing irritating, but I was still looking forward to the concert. We don’t get too many concerts here in northern Idaho, which makes me realize more and more how lucky I was to live and study for three years in London, where you can choose between five or six wonderful concerts any night of the week.

The first piece on the programme was John Cage’s Credo in Us, an experimental work dating from the Second World War. This kind of “chance happening” composition, with random bursts of radio broadcasts interspersed with piano and percussion, is very much of its time, but under the right conditions can work well as an interesting period piece. I’ve always felt that with this sort of thing, a certain theatricality is called for in the presentation of the performance. But when the first performer wandered out on stage, she was dressed so messily in jeans and walking so casually that most of the audience took her, I think, for a stage hand. The first sign that anything was about to happen was that she started to fiddle with a tape recorder, which eventually blasted a bit of Tchaikovsky’s B flat piano concerto. One by one, the other performers ambled onstage, and started playing their instruments…with their backs to the audience.

Now, I understand and respect that many groups that want to bring new people into concert halls are doing everything they can think of to lessen the stiff ultra-formality of the experience. I know that being at a classical concert for the first time can be just as intimidating as, say, attending a church service where you don’t know the rituals and responses. We have to evangelize as much as any church. To this end, I’ve played cafe and nightclub concerts in jeans myself. But first of all, they were nice jeans, which I wore with smart shirts and high heels. I always brushed my hair. I always wore makeup. I didn’t dress like the garbage man, and I didn’t dress age-inappropriately. Secondly, I always went to great trouble to present myself professionally and pleasantly. I would never, ever position myself with my back to the audience. Apart from damaging the acoustic possibilities of the performance, it’s rude and uncommunicative. No one wants to stare at your backside all night.

The ensemble’s biography also claimed that the group’s followers “bring fresh ears to sounds never heard before; they bring their experiences from rock stadiums, jazz clubs, and internet electronica to the concert hall. They hunger for the new.” I don’t claim to be a possessor of these new ears, but I can’t imagine that the slouching demeanour of the performers could win too many rock fans over. Rock musicians take their craft just as seriously as we classical types do. In my admittedly limited experience of what they do, they seem to go to immense trouble to create “music as an experience” in their concerts. Presentation isn’t everything, but it’s very, very important. As the performance went on, never seeming to pick up any energy or spark, I started to bite my nails with annoyance, suppressing a mad impulse to leap to my feet and blurt “Where’s your “experience”? Where’s your sense of theatre? Where’s your magic and your mystery? Where’s your sense of occasion?” I felt as if I were watching a dull rehearsal.

Next on the programme was Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. It’s one of my favourite pieces, and I’d been looking forward to hearing my first live performance of it for two or three years. I’d have thought that for an ensemble exclusively comprising piano and percussion, this might have been their equivalent of, say, the Bach Suites for a cellist like me, something they knew intimately and could pull off really well.

Again, I experienced disappointment. It seemed under-rehearsed, poorly prepared, and not together. The pianos were all but inaudible because of the battery of percussion arranged in front of them, again with the percussionists’ backs to the audience. The pianists were invisible behind the equipment, even from my vantage point in one of the best seats in the house. I found myself doing something previously unthinkable for me during a performance of Bartok: I squirmed with boredom. I contemplated whether I could discreetly and politely clamber over six people to get out of my row and exit the hall, and decided I couldn’t. I clenched my toes; I developed a distracting and unscratchable itch on my scalp; I stifled yawns; I no doubt drove all my fellow audience members crazy.

I’m told that the second half, featuring Steve Reich’s Sextet, was a lot better. I didn’t stick around to hear it.

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