Sunday, November 2, 2008

In which MM goes off on an obnoxious rant about obnoxious audience behavior...

Went to hear the amazing Jeremy Denk today. His blog is, hands down, the best music blog out there - in fact, it may well represent the best music writing out there, period (that includes you, music journals). I certainly find more inspiration per word there than anywhere else. Thus, it's quite annoying to confirm that he's also a remarkable pianist, managing to excel in every way in a program Matthew Guerrieri rightly referred to as an Evil Knievel undertaking: Ives' Concord Sonata and Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata.

I'm not gonna try to give a blow-by-blow rundown of the afternoon, although I generally found it more and more thrilling as it went along. It's not that the Ives wasn't successful; in fact, I honestly arrived more excited about hearing that than the Beethoven. Unfortunately, as transcendent as Denk's Ives was, there was no transcending the micro-carnival that surrounded me. Ah, audiences - can't have recitals without'em, can't voir-dire'em. Honestly, I wish I could manage to be less sensitive to this sort of thing, and I really don't want to be one of those horrible elitist music snobs who looks down at noisy neighbors. Really, I don't. I suppose it's just one of life's many intractable paradoxes. One doesn't want a comatose audience, and it can be uncomfortable and physically stressful to sit quietly for long stretches. Come to think of it, Denk could well have been describing the Gardner Museum's Tapestry Room when he wrote the following:

Often these days, I look around those grand, gilded rooms with the rows of chairs all tidy and neat, and childhood urges come back to me: a preschool dining table, and the beautiful desire to upend everybody’s plate and have the king of all food fights. I think splattering a major orchestra with banana creme pie would be an excellent start, for something. But what? Could this irreverence, paradoxically, prevent people from thumbing their Blackberries during the slow movement of Beethoven’s 4th Concerto? Because despite the flying pie I want music still to reign; I want there to be decorum and disorder, ecstatic chaos and reverent awe, all at once.
The problem is, all things being equal, it's best to listen to this sort of program without extra noises. For me, the problems started less than 3o seconds into the Ives when the guy right in front of me started slowly jamming his program into his jacket pocket. Crinkle, crinkle... Crinkle.... crinkle. Then (...crinkle...), not long after, there was a "boing" and something went flying out of his pocket. I heard it land with a metallic doink on the hard stone tile to our left (he and I were both on the aisle, definitely the place to be since the Gardner jams those hard little straight-backed chairs much too close together), and I then spotted the insides of a ballpoint pen on the ground about six feet over. I didn't have to spend too much time being anxious about whether he'd be content to leave the pen be - no, he looked around and then unceremoniously stood up and walked over to get it. Nice. Then, as far as I could tell, he spent much of the next few minutes trying to reassemble the pen. Nice. I'm telling myself to relax, forget about him, and just listen to the music, but it's a losing battle. Fortunately, the guy in front of the guy in front of me finally delivered the inevitable dirty look, and it seemed to help. You know, classical audiences get a lot of bad press for delivering these dirty looks, but this guy had it coming in spades.

If I may just spin off on a wild tangent, WHAT IS IT WITH PEOPLE? We're living in a society here. Your actions may affect the welfare of others. It's like the person who stops his/her car in the middle of the road to check directions - or makes a traffic-defying U-turn when a turn has been missed. Yeah, that might be a more convenient choice for you, but in the meantime you're driving people crazy - you're making us suffer for your mistake. Anyway, Pen Guy behaved better for the remainder of the first movement.

Then came the dreaded latecomer seating between movements. And, hey, I can be sympathetic here: parking in the vicinity of the Gardner is no picnic. I'd arrived in the area more than an hour early, but then spent about half of that hour looking for a reasonable spot. But here's the thing. There were (regrettably, given the appeal of this event) many empty rows of seats at the back of the hall, but this wasn't good enough for the latecomers, many of whom seemed intent on finding the very best available seat. Naturally, all such seats were in the middle of the tightly spaced aisles. Denk looked out with a bemused expression for what seemed like 2-17 minutes; finally, he gave up and dived back in, catching me by surprise. This was a fun time, because it took at least 30 more seconds for a pair to get settled into two seats right behind me. Nice.

Now I regret going where I'm going to go now, but the regrettable fact is that one of these newcomers had a rather pronounced hand tremor. Let me be clear: I don't envy anyone that situation, and that's a much worse problem than whether or not I have an ideal recital experience. Much worse. In the grand scheme of things, my complaint here is trivial. Nonetheless, this guy held his program for the remainder of the Ives, which meant there were many extended stretches in which paper rattling was a constant. Again, I tried not to be distracted, but it became a tortuous obsession. Much as I enjoyed the Ives, I remember it more as a series magical/astounding moments than as a continuous experience. True, to some degree that goes with the stream-of-consciousness Ivesian territory, but I wish I could have been more consistently tuned in than circumstances allowed. So many times, a whispered passage was accompanied by extra-musical sounds. (And don't tell me Ives would've wanted it that way.)

Boo-hoo, poor me. You know, it was frustrating, but this kind of experience just comes with the territory - there is no perfect solution for how to present this kind of music. As I've mentioned, I don't think the Gardner helps by stuffing us so close together in those somewhat severe chairs. I also sincerely wonder about the wisdom of handing people these stapled sheets of letter-sized paper - or any paper at all. True, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mr. Denk's notes, and we're a few years away from a world in which everyone could just download notes to a portable reading device. So here's a suggestion. Politely ask that audience members put their programs under their chairs when the performance is in progress. If someone really wants to have notes out to follow along, then additionally request that they turn pages silently. Aside from the paper disturbances in my immediate vicinity, one could fairly often hear various "listeners" flipping pages over - or programs slipping off laps onto the floor. Of course, no one should have to be told any of this, but a lot of folks do live in their own little worlds.

At any rate, audience behavior was much better in the Beethoven. As much as I love the Ives, its stream-of-consciousness makes it less overtly compelling to the average audience member, whereas Beethoven's inexorable logic exerts a pull on even the least experienced listener. For me, the highlight of the afternoon was the extremely long, slow, even meandering 3rd movement of the Beethoven (only Beethoven can make meandering seem so directed); audience noise was never a factor there. Maybe I just didn't notice what noise there was because I was so wrapped up in what Denk was doing, but even though the Hammerklavier is not the easiest piece to listen to, I'm not surprised it's more likely to command rapt attention. The 4th movement was equally extraordinary - fingers flying, fugues exploding. It actually felt too short.

Given that Denk is on record as understanding that concerts can be boring and that listeners often fail to be engaged, it's notable that he's choosing to play such a forbidding program; but I suspect he's counting on a couple of things. First, the whole "event" status of such a program is the kind of thing that gets an audience excited. Second, rather than worry about stringing together a bunch of smaller pieces into a coherent structure, he's letting Ives and Beethoven take care of that. That's my own bias in programming as well - one of the reasons I so enjoyed the BSO's Mahler 6 a few weeks back.

On the other hand, I'm not going to worry myself too much about large-scale coherence with this post. Obviously, blogging's been a bit slow, and I'm somewhat distracted watching the Patriots right now anyway. I think I'll just post this, and hope you're not distracted by crinkling paper while reading it.

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