Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Blurbs and Ballyhooed Concerts

Last weekend, I took S on a much anticipated birthday treat- a concert featuring Joshua Bell, violinist extraordinaire, playing the Red Violin concerto, Oscar-winning score by composer John Corigliano, an astonishingly young-looking 70 year old. All that I knew of Joshua Bell, was primarily that he was young, kind of a rock star in the classical music world and had engaged last year in a curious experiment to see how many would stop and pay attention to world-class music from a world-class musician at the corner of a subway station ( Login required, so I'm quoting from the article below):
Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

Pearls before the swine, indeed.

Or wait!

By the end of Sunday's concert, I did feel like a pig rooting for a truffle who only got regular farmyard swill . Or maybe I'm just turning into an old fuddy-duddy who wants the comforting pablum of harmonies instead of wild dissonances and fancy new techniques.

Sunday's concert started off with a piece by Samuel Barber, short and sweet at 11 minutes, the audience clapping heartily at its conclusion. Next, we were all agog with the expected appearance of the soloist, but it was the composer who walked on stage. He went on and on, describing practically measure by measure, the source of his inspiration, peppered with terms such as 'virtuosic etudes', ' plaintive theme', 'flautando' ( a newly coined term for a technique to make the violin sound like a flute- beats me- as a composer, why not just use a flute where a flute like sound is desired?). Everyone clapped when he was done (seemed to me, in relief,) and announced the entry of the 'Superstar'. Big round of clapping, then the orchestra started up, along with Mr.Bell's first plaintive notes of the main theme of the concerto.

The next half hour or more had virtuosic moves galore, Mr.Bell bowing in a frenzy and all but taking his priceless ( $4 million dollar Stradivari violin) and smashing it to the ground in a rock star gesture. He managed to rip some of the horsehair on his bow and get it twined on the violin, and had me wondering for a moment if he had broken a string. Plenty of drama onstage, but musically, the piece did nothing for me. I glanced out the corner of my eye. S was observing the antics on stage with interest, the gentleman beyond bent his head down, nodding slightly, but didn't snore, mercifully. I took a quick look at the other side of the aisle. All white haired heads were rapt in their attention to the stage.

Finally, the music onstage came to an end in a grand crescendo of a 'race' between the orchestra and the violinist. Approximately 2/3rds of the audience stood up in a standing ovation as the violinist bowed and strode offstage. Someone kept yelling "Bravo" as loudly as he could, about 3 rows behind us. I stayed firmly in my seat, unwilling to give an ovation to music that I didn't very much like, no matter how virtuosic and technically superior the performance.

Next were the more familiar notes of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but tired by the anticipation gone flat, to my horror,I started dozing off towards the end. I was woken up by the final loud section which had the percussionist in the orchestra competing with the cymbals and gong to outdo the entire strings and wind section in loudness, as a triumphal march swept through the "Gates of Kiev". After the last tremendous, ear shattering burst of tutti, silence reigned for a split second. Then the applause started, another standing ovation in the making. I slipped on my coat, urged S out and raced off to the parking garage.

Thank god for small mercies :
  1. I avoided getting a migraine- perhaps due to the short duration of the concert.
  2. I got out of the parking garage in record time (5 minutes, as opposed to the usual half hour). This concert had drawn such a crowd, that I had parked in a different garage than usual, with pay-at-entry and exiting through a single quick spiral driveway.
  3. No thanks to the effusive newspaper critic's review that led me to believe that the main piece was a modern composition that 'deserved a singular place in the classical canon' or some such drivel. Next time, I'll take the said critic's opinions with a massive helping of salt.

Perhaps I should consider tickets to the Sarah Chang concert coming up soon- at least it's Vivaldi's Four Seasons, familiar and comforting, guaranteed- easy- on- the -ears listening...

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