Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sox vs. Symphony

Two weekends ago, I attended a playoff game at Fenway Park; last weekend, as already mentioned, I attended a performance of Mahler 6 at Symphony Hall. I know it's not really fair to compare the experience of an orchestra concert with a sporting event, but my mind keeps drifting back to this imaginary matchup, probably because I've been evaluating my experience as a new BSO subscriber at the same time the Red Sox are in the midst of yet another exciting playoff run. It's relevant in the whole "what will happen to classical music" discussion, because sports are such a major audience draw. Elitists will often sneer at society's fixation on silly sporting events, which sneering is probably fair, but surely there's something to be learned from something which attracts such loyal devotion from its audiences.

One comparison I keep thinking about is the question of length. The baseball game was a grueling, 12-inning nailbiter that the visiting Angels ended up winning just before 1AM (the game had started at 7:30). When factoring in the time it took to fetch the car (parked, I might proudly add, in a free spot only 15 minutes away from Fenway), and then adding in the time to get the very generous babysitter home, I ended up going to bed at 2AM that night, all in the interest of seeing my team lose in dispiriting fashion. And yet I'm glad I went. It's funny, in that context, to think that the Mahler is considered a long piece; it's so long by symphonic standards that there was nothing else on the program, there was no intermission, and thus, the evening was quite short, well less than 2 hours. In fact, we left Symphony Hall that night and headed straight to a restaurant to catch up on what the Sox were doing that night. Fortunately, we didn't stay until the end, because that game went 11 innings, and we lost it as well.

Of course, one experiences these lengths quite differently, since the Mahler requires sitting quietly for about an hour and a half. The baseball game, especially a high-stakes playoff game, involves lots of standing, and yelling, and even singing ("Sweet Caroline, Oh! Oh! Oh!...") - odd that the baseball game would be the one to invite the audience to make music - not to mention eating, drinking, talking... It's obviously a more naturally social occasion, so time passes more quickly. (Maybe symphony audiences trend older because the patrons want to feel time move slowly. (HINT: For those who really want to delay the inevitable, I recommend Haydn's Creation - "Spend eternity back where it all started!" - but I'm getting off point.))

Anyway, it's not my point here to argue the relative merits of suffering along with Gustav vs. suffering along with Gus from the North End, except maybe to note that it's hard for the concert to match the "event" status of a playoff game, even when Mahler's on the bill. More than anything, this has to do with the fact that no one knows how the game will end (whereas I complained in my last post that I didn't come in knowing enough about how the Mahler would go), but it also has to do with the enormous media coverage that saturates the experience of taking in a big game. As I mentioned last post, even with the BSO making a big deal out of trying out two different orderings of movements on Friday/Saturday, with the idea of selecting the more satisfactory for Tuesday, there was zero media interest (even from the BSO's own website) in following how this played out. Believe me, if tonight's game doesn't go well, every decision Sox manager Terry Francona makes about his ordering of relief pitchers will be endlessly dissected.

Still, although a sporting event has spontaneity on its side, it also draws strength from history and tradition in a way that is true for classical music as well. You need to have endured a LOT of disappointing games (as I most certainly have) to appreciate fully how remarkable Thursday night's Red Sox comeback was. The fact that I have sat, with a sort of anything's-possible attitude, through countless hopeless situations made it all the more unbelievable when Boston overcame the 7th innning 7-0 deficit. The fact that this was the biggest playoff comeback since 1929?!? That's history! Unbelievably compelling history. In fact, no team had ever survived such a deficit when facing elimation. OK, in the grand scheme of things, it's not so important, but then neither is Mahler, really. But to witness (well, we don't have cable, so I only heard via radio) such an unlikely and uplifting thing happen? It would be hard for a concert to compete.

This all reminds me of a night back in Spring of 1992. I had chosen to attend a high-level, professional piano recital being hosted by my university, even though there was a big college basketball game I really wanted to see. I can still picture myself sitting in my car at the recital's intermission, listening to a game that was going down to the wire. I was torn, but ultimately decided to go hear more piano: Liszt's Venezia e Napoli and I-have-no-idea what else. The only lasting impression that recital has made on me is that I ended up missing what is often considered the greatest NCAA tournament game of all time, when Christian Laettner's last-minute catch-and-shoot beat Kentucky. I'm not even going to mention the name of the piano recitalist, because I've always held an unfair grudge against her. I did get a small bit of revenge on music in general. A few years back, having recently acquired my first video iPod, I had, as an iTunes impulse buy, downloaded a condensed version of the Duke-Kentucky game. While sitting through an excruciatingly boring performance of Haydn's Creation, I absent-mindedly flipped out the iPod and starting watching some hoops.

Which brings us, oddly, to tonight when I face the Sophie's Choice of either going to a piano recital by star-of-the-moment Simone Dinnerstein or staying home to watch Game 6 of Sox-Rays. (In this case, staying at the in-laws' means that cable TV is available.) Actually, in spite of the story just told, I've already decided on the piano recital, but I have two things in my favor. First, the game should still be going on for an hour or more after the recital is done. Second, I now have my hands on an iPhone (handed down to me by my sister who's already got the newer model) which, though not hooked up as a phone, will be able to access my school's Wi-Fi during the recital. No, I don't intend to follow pitch by pitch, but it will be nice to know where things stand down in Florida, even as the otherworldly strains of Beethoven's Op.111 (temporary eternity of the best kind) round out the recital. By the way, I love encores, as a rule, but I think it's safe to say I'll be fine without one tonight - unless the Sox are already down by an insurmountable seven runs.

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