Monday, May 16, 2011

A very rare symphony concert!

Just made it into the concert of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last night. Had left it late to leave home, found the subway was not running to Manhattan, instead I had to run to the tram (should have taken the bike after all) and then rushed across Manhattan from the tram stop, sliding into my seat in the balcony on the first applause. Luckily all these concerts have started with someone talking, so I did not miss any music. Boy, it's a long way up to the balcony, and then again a long way down to the front row (and a much longer way down to the floor of the hall). During the first half I noticed my seat neighbour fingering the balcony rail, which looks like painted cast iron, and is less than half an inch thick...not much to separate us from tipping down on the folks a long way below us. (She did not return for the second half).

The topic for this concert was the evolution of the symphony. Having rushed in at the last moment I had not picked up a programme, and often I don't like to look too much at the programming in advance, because I go for the performers rather than the programming. That way I get to hear interesting stuff. I knew it was Beethoven 5 at the end, and some Bach at the beginning, among quite a long list of pieces.

The announcement was that all pieces in the first half would be played continuously and that there should be no applause till the end of the first half. So Mr Nagano and the pianist (who I just discovered was the famous Angela Hewitt - I now hear all these people live that I used to hear on the radio) came on the stage... and the performance started with what I assumed to be Gabrieli, and turned out to be two of his Symphoniae Sacrae. Beautifully played by the brass section of the orchestra, standing in two groups opposite each other, and tossing themes backwards and forwards. It's so nice to hear brass music without having to fear that they will fall apart, have kinks and whatnot. Apart from being among perhaps the earliest pieces to include the s-word in their titles, they also served as rather nice fanfares to start the concert.

Immediately the last of their sound stopped reverberating round the hall, the audience had its solo of coughing. The CH actually gives out free cough sweets, in packets to be opened rustlingly (my seat neighbour had four and did not even cough...), but there seems little effect. Regardless, Ms Hewitt launched into the first of 3 sets of Bach Sinfonias for keyboard, a total of 10 out of the set of 15 - I actually have the sheet music, an Urtext version, here, but it's probably a bit naff to take sheet music to concerts, though people have been known to do that (haven't seen it in CH). While she was playing I was wondering whether I approved of Bach being played on a piano, but then thought that a harpsichord might not carry well in CH, and anyway, Andras Schiff does all his sublime performances on piano. It was a bit strange, hearing her play this music in front of the huge band and the immovable Kent Nagano .... Then a piece for orchestra followed, where I swear each section never played more than four notes at a stretch, with the same micro-motif appeared throughout the piece in all sections. It was fascinating how interesting this piece was, and yet not a single bit of melody. Turned out it was Webern's Symphony (op 21). It must be really hard to hold this piece together, and I wonder how it feels to play it? Emotionally I would not rush to hear it again, but intellectually it would be interesting to hear it a few more times to get more of a grip of it. This was followed by more Bach, and Stravinsky's wind symphony. Quite a rollercoaster of pieces!

Finally, well almost, we had Beethoven's fifth symphony. Yes, ok, a war horse, but well worth waiting for, and I suspect the lollipop to draw in the audience. It was a majestic performance, extremely fast, occasionally I thought the suspensions could have been held a smidgeon longer. But there were some other awesome corners (I really like extreme pianissimos, or pianissimi). Strangely I found the brass extremely bright. The instuments looked different, and later I wondered if they had used cornets rather than trumpets.

But this was not the end of the concert. As the conductor went off, some other musicians sidled onto the stage.... the first encore was something contemplative by Debussy, followed by the Le Corsaire overture. A great thrower-out, even though it might be strange to end a concert with an overture.

I've also realised that in NY no-one gets flowers at the end of a concert. My theory still stands that the poorer the country the more flowers the performers get (maybe they don't get much of a fee there). In Germany they get official flowers, in Lithuania official flowers and, often, a single tulip or whatever is in season, from audience members, in Russia I saw a lady bring in homemade bunches of flowers delivering them at all sorts of moments in the concert, like between movements (the next day I spotted her raiding rubbish bins for beer bottles), in Armenia tiny girls with bouquets larger than themselves struggle onto the stage. I suppose a bunch of flowers is an additional expense. Fair enough, what would the travelling performers do with a bunch of flowers, but it still seems a nice gesture.

NY Times reviews of the last two concerts here.


ju dee ang said...

In London I saw people at concerts with scores all the time! Especially anything involving serialism...

The Webern is actually full of symmetry and canons of lines made up of notes from different instruments. It is really cool, even if it doesn't sound like much -- if you flip through a copy of the latest Norton Anthology of Western Music in a bookstore or something I think you'd find the write-up quite fun.

Pete said...

Yes, I studied a bit on 12 tone music when I did my diploma; a score there would probably quite useful and interesting.

As to the scores in concerts - a friend of my mother's, a pharmacist, is really a closet musician and prone to conducting whilst sitting in the audience. More than once he has had to swap seats with people with him so his seat neighbours would not go crazy