Category Archives: concert ettiquete

Percussive Musicking, in Ecstatic and Juilliard Flavors

“Maybe this is what some guys feel like when they go to a baseball game,” it occurred to me as I settled into my seat at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday evening.  The Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, directed by my long-ago Tanglewood classmate Daniel Druckman, would be starting soon.  I felt relaxed, happy, curious, full of anticipation for what I was sure would be an evening of unexpected pleasures.

Juilliard Percussion Ensemble (from juilliard.edu)

I just love percussion ensemble concerts (including the student and professional ones at DePauw, where I teach). I’ve had a good music education and can follow what’s going on. I’ve played a little hand percussion, but I don’t have a desire to be a percussionist. A really enthusiastic, appreciative audience member, that’s what I am. There’s almost always some instrument or two I haven’t heard about.  The teamwork and non-verbal communication among the players is always something to watch.

And it was the second percussion night in a row for me.  I love New York!

Monday, I’d been to the final concert of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merikin Hall, a very full evening of five concertos, composed by Bobby Previte for soloists plus the four members of So Percussion. It was broadcast live as part of WQXR‘s New Sounds Live series.  You can hear the webcast for yourself.

Here Bobby talks about the piece is a promo video:

 

And the members of So Percussion. [Update: oops–for some reason when I first saw this video I thought it was about their Previte concert.  It’s actually about their Jan. 20 show.  But it’s cool, anyway, so I’m leaving it here]:

 

The two programs couldn’t have been more different.  The Juilliard concert, “Ceremony and Ritual: Percussion Music of Japan/Part of Carnegie Hall’s JapanNYC Festival,” set in the gorgeous Alice Tully Hall, had a certain dressy-casual elegance to it. Everything was fully composed, the music often elegant and spare. Definitely contemporary concert-hall music. The Ecstatic Music Festival, meanwhile, has focused on a sense of music felt by curator Judd Greenstein, described by its education director Argeo Ascani in a program note.

Born and raised in NYC, the melting pot of all melting pots, Greenstein’s musical upbringing resembled the diversity of the city around him–hip hop “popular” music and the piano-lesson “classical” music of the conservatory.  For him, there was no differentiation–it was all just music. . . . And he’s not alone.

And so you get things like Previte’s wildly eclectic “Terminals, Part I: Departures,” five concerti for percussion ensemble and improvising soloists.  Jen Shyu (voice and er hu), DJ Olive (turntables and computer), Zeena Parkins (harp and electric harp), John Medeski (Hammond organ and piano), and Previte himself were the center-stage protagonists.

Since I go through phases where I improvise a lot (and others when I don’t), I was especially interested by the improvisational aspect (which made this a must-attend event for me). Improvisation, of course, is not an all-or-nothing thing.  Much music throughout the world has a improvisational component while having some sort of fixed framework, composed or passed down through oral/aural traditions. Such is the case with Previte’s Terminals;  the ensemble music was fully composed, while the soloists had much room for extemporizing.

In an on-stage interview with New Sounds Live host John Schaefer at the start of the concert, Previte explained he originally intended to use motives from 35+ years of his own drum solos as the basis for the compositions.  He put out word “on the Internets” and friends and fans sent him recordings, many bootlegged, from throughout his career.  It must have been fascinating to hear all those collected improvisations.

Many times I’m soloing in the context of someone else’s band . . . some [solos] are informed by other people’s music. You write music and then in the music you have someone improvise.  Now whose music is that?  Is it your music, is it their music? You know, you get kind of genius people to play and it becomes your music, interestingly.

Great question.  Is it the composer’s music, the improvising performer’s music, or does it all somehow become the music’s music?

The program started with a (recorded) mash-up of some of those Previte solos, put together by DJ Olive.  And mash-up describes is the perfect description of the evening.  A tremendous amount of fascinating, effective ideas. For me though, they were thrown so closely together that the music often felt aimless or, at other times, chaotic. I often found myself wondering what the musical point was. Where the structure was.  There certainly was an experimental-music feel to the evening, and experimental music by its nature rarely features a Beethoven-like motivic development.

As far as the improvisations go, while it was possible to surmise what sections (especially the unaccompanied ones) were improvised, you couldn’t tell for sure what was composed and what wasn’t.  So in the context of the pieces, the improvisations were really effective, as was the space and context created for them.

But I just didn’t get the music.  I’m listening to the webcast as I write.  On second hearing, the music still feels as it did that night: brilliant yet self-indulgently overly-long.  (Like my blog entries, at least in the self-indulgent, overly-long aspect.)  My overall impression was of an extraordinarily talented composer who, inexperienced with crafting long forms, packed in too many ideas and didn’t have a sense of what to cut out. But that’s me; this may well have been something where I have a blind spot and just didn’t get it.

It was, in any event, a great experiment. The very fact that this concert, and the entire festival, happened, and happened at a mainstream, Lincoln-Center area venue is cause for celebration. It’s something I’m really glad to have experienced (and wish I’d been able to make it to more of the festival’s concerts).  And maybe if I had been stoned I would have loved it this concert.  (Those were the days.)

If Monday night felt like too much of too many things, Tuesday exemplified the “less is more” virtues of Zen-like simplicity.  Not that all of the music was simple by any means.  Allan Kozinn’s Times review gives an excellent summary, which I won’t try to repeat here.  These were beautifully crafted pieces by composers not finding their way in a new medium, but clearly at the top of their games.

Being there had its amusing moments unrelated to the activities on stage.

“It’s all Japanese music!  It was supposed to be half Japanese and half something else,” announced the strong-voiced lady seated to my left, thumbing through her program before the concert started.

“Who told you that?” asked her companion, perhaps wondering, like me, why anyone would have expected a concert that was part of the Carnegie Hall JapanNYC festival to have anything but Japanese music on it.

“I have a paper at home about it,” she replied.  “I’ll have to look it up when I get back.”

If she’d been a sitcom character, she’d have seemed too much of a caricature, a stereotype  of a an elderly New Yorker who talks too much, too loudly.  “I’m all discombobulated,” she announced as she struggled to take off her coat.  “Oh my, I’ve somehow lost my program!”  I had ended up with two, so I offered her one.  “Thank you.  I just don’t know . . . oh, there it is, under the seat!”  Reclaimed item in her hand, she returned mine.  “Here.  You keep it your extra in case I lose mine again.”

“Oh, Takimetsu!  I remember he did something weird over at Philharmonic Hall (the original name for the space now known as Avery Fisher Hall) years ago.  It was very weird.  Oh, my.”

To my right, two children, brother and sister about 11 and 9, I’d guess, with their grandfather between them.  They were quiet and fascinated, and the family softly discussed the music between pieces.  What a special night for them, I imagined, and thought as well that they’ll likely be concert-music patrons in the future.

Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree was ethereal, not “weird,” and the concert-opening Masakazu Natsuda‘s Wooden Music exemplified the virtues of space and silences.  Akira Nishimura‘s rousing Ketiak, with congas, yellow maracas, headsets, and rhythmic chanting, was the most exciting piece and would, I thought, have made a more rousing finish to the program then Jo Kondo’s cowbells and gong Under the Umbrella.  But obviously Daniel Druckman wanted to end not with a bang but a . . . cow bell.

Sorry, I can’t help but write more about being there that night.  “I wonder why they have those things on their heads!” my voluble next-door neighbor for the evening, , spotting the head sets with microphones several of the players were adjusting, wondered out (very) loud before the Nishimura.

“It will be obvious once it starts,” came the forceful, annoyed-but-trying-to-be-polite voice of a man in the row ahead of us, who twisted around to explain, hoping, it seemed, to quiet her.  She obviously believes in offering color commentary right until the music starts (but she was always silent during the music). Druckman raised his hands to begin one piece, the audience quieted, and her voice rang throughout the hall.  “I wonder if we’ll get free wine again after this?” (She’d obviously been to one or more of the Tully Scope concerts, where there was a free glass after the show.)  “Probably not.”  Beat.  Music.

My son loves the UConn men’s basketball team, has watched every game he could this season. Passionate about it. The fabulous Juilliard Percussion Ensemble is like a top college sports team.  Maybe even better.  Because just to get in to a place like Juilliard as a percussion major, you have to play as well as many professionals. The level of skill is a joy to behold. (And some of them look so young that people around me wondered if those players might be in high school.)

Several pieces had no conductor.  So, as in all good chamber music, you could see the leading and following, the attentiveness to each other, the swirling energy. Percussion music, with the players standing and often moving from one instrument to another, has a unique athleticism to it.

And as in a good game on any level, there are errors and saves.  During the second-half opening piece, the premiere of Hiroya Miura‘s Mitate, a drum stick slipped off a music stand, and, while rotating, was caught deftly in mid-air. At the final note of the same piece, the same fellow’s cymbal flew off its stand. With almost superhero speed, he bent over and grabbed it just before it hit the floor, freezing in position.

Who was he?  No numbers or names on the shirts, so I’ll never know.  To me, he’ll forever remain the amazing adroit, if a bit clumsy, young man in the gray shirt.

It’s music.  And, sometimes it’s sport, too.  I love percussion ensembles.  I love the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble.  And I love New York.

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, Bobby Previte, concert ettiquete, DJ Olive, Ecstatic Music Festival, Improvising Performers, Jen Shyu, John Medeski, Judd Greenstein, Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, Percussion Ensembles, WQXR, Zeena Parkins

The Ushers vs. YouTube Culture

Last night, I kept casting my gaze down and around from my second-tier seat in Avery Fisher Hall at the rest of the audience.  Looked just like the crowd at a funeral, except not as well dressed.  Mostly gray and balding heads.  It was if they’d come to say goodbye to an old friend.  Just a sprinkling of younger people.

If we want to get younger audiences into mainstream classical institutions, we need to look at, among other things, the disconnect between the rules and traditions of traditional concert halls and the realities of today’s 40-and-under culture.  When it comes to non-flash photography using small cameras and smart phones, it’s the ushers (and the proprietary mindset of their employers and the classical establishment) vs. our new YouTube culture.  The new culture, where we want to take video and photos and share them with each other, is winning, of course, but the ushers aren’t going down without a fight.

Tuesday (at Alice Tully Hall), Wednesday (at the New York State Theatre) and last night (Thursday, at Avery Fisher Hall), ushers charged with enforcing no-photography rules caused more of a disturbance than whatever the behavior was that they were trying to stop.

Eric to the world: this doesn’t help create attractive experiences for new participants.

There I was on Tuesday, enjoying the really extraordinary Juilliard Percussion Ensemble’s Alice Tully Hall performance, when, during the music, an usher walked right in front us on our side of Row S, so we had to pull in our feet to make room for him.  At first I wondered who this asshole guy was, and why an usher hadn’t stopped him.  Then I saw he was in a tux and obviously part of the staff. An usher supervisor, maybe. Made his way to the empty seats in the middle of the row and made fussing gestures at someone  a row or two back.  Who was the malfeaser?  What crime against the Alice Tully was being committed?  Could it have been, horrors, a parent taking video of his or her child performing on stage?

Then Wednesday, in the midst of the informal rock-concert atmosphere at New York City Opera’s presentation of John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (a more delightfully incongruent contrast between performers and the formality of the space I’ve never seen), lights started flashing in my eyes. Ouch! I was in the first row of the first tier, in an aisle seat.  I looked to my left, and there was an usher, next aisle over, waving a (very bright) flashlight at a woman, I finally saw, in the middle of the front row of the section to my left.  Who was doing something with, I think, an iPhone.  (At first, paranoid guy that I am, I’d been afraid I was doing something wrong–legs crossed, the tip of one foot was slightly touching the top of the wall there to keep us from falling into the orchestra seats.) The waving light came again.  And again.  The message was clear.  Stop that!  (You bad person!) It just felt hostile.  Especially given the joyful, often chaotic explosion on the stage.

Finally the flashlight was turned off.

Ah, back to the music.

My relief came too soon.  Almost immediately the flashlight-armed usher was right next to me, joined by another.  They were pointing and whispering to each other, loud enough for me to hear speculation about seat numbers.  Finally they gave up–I thought it might escalate to a security guard being called–and went back to their watchtower-like posts.

Through through most of this I could look to my right and see an official photographer taking photos.  Talk about irony!

Last night (Thursday), at least at intermission and not during the performance, an usher scolded a New York Philharmonic patron who was, I think, taking a photo of the largely unoccupied stage. The camera or phone was put away, the usher left, the device soon came back out and the photo was taken.  The ushers have been given a losing battle to fight.

My seatmate told me about hearing a concert at the Cleveland Orchestra’s home base, Severance Hall, which she thought was the most beautiful music venue she’d been to.  But an usher stopped her from taking a photo. There are issues, I know.  But if I was running the Cleveland Orchestra, which is not exactly drowning in excess funding, I wouldn’t want my friend complaining about not being able to take a photo of the orchestra’s hall.  I’d want her showing it to me and everyone else, maybe organizing a weekend trip to Cleveland.

God forbid you even think about eating or drinking at your seat.  During intermission at a Zankel Hall concert, a patron started to walk in from the lobby with a drink in his hand.  “SIR!  SIR!” yelled an usher from across the way. He looked at her and she pointed at the drink while shaking her head somewhat, what, dismissively? Angrily?  Maybe “annoyedly assertive disdain” is the best way to put it.

OK, I know there are umpteem copyright issues.  No recording!  No video!  No photography!  And people texting and holding up cameras and smartphones can be distracting.  But this is what younger people do, what they want, how they share with each other.

Big classical-music institutions aren’t helping themselves, or the cause, by continuing this fear-inducing, semi-hostile environment.  We want to get new audiences in. They need to feel, and be, welcomed. We’ve got to find a way to embrace the new technology and user-driven social media, and let people do want people want to do.

(Now on Twitter @ericedberg)

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, alienating audiences, audeince building, Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall, concert ettiquete, future of classical music, Lincoln Center, New York State Theatre, Performance Venues, Traditional Venues, Zankel Hall

Life without the sound of silence

There were two comments, each well written and making good points, on my Go Ahead and Clap Between Movements post.  Elaine Fine points out, quite rightly, that applause can be distracting to the performer’s concentration, and that it changes the effect of a subsequent movement.  She gives the example of applause between the first two movements of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony.

Consider my wording: the applause that happens after a first movement also happens before a second movement. Applause between those movements nullifies the impact of the first chord of the second movement. You may as well start with the theme!

But the end of the first movement seems quite obviously to have been written, among other things, to elicit applause.  Beethoven, based on everything I know, would have expected it.  And that wonderful opening chord of the second movement would still have an impact if it comes after the applause dies down, even, perhaps especially, if it interrupts and cuts off the last bit of applause.  This of course would mean that we accept a new-to-us paradigm in which the performance is an audience-inclusive social experience in which audience response is welcome.  It’s not out of the question that given the conventions of his time, Beethoven intended that chord to silence lingering applause, rather than emerge from silence.

I certainly cannot prove that Beethoven would not have preferred the currently-traditional silence-between-movements culture of professional symphony concerts.  I imagine that he would have gladly thrown out any piano he ever played in favor of a nine-foot Steinway.

Underlying both of Elaine’s points, with which I personally sympathize, and the larger opposition to applause between movements, is, I believe, the idea that silence between movements is part of the work. Performers who are used to that silence, and experience it as part of what is supposed to happen, as part of what is, are going to be discomfited, just as many audience members are offended.

It will be interesting to see how our musical culture evolves.  As Alex Ross has documented so well, the “musical assumption” that silence between movements is part of the work is a fairly recent development.  It will be interesting to see how classical-music culture evolves;  silence between all movements may well be an idea whose time has come and gone.

Having experimented a bit with inviting applause between movements, I can say that applause after a quiet end of a slow movement can be jarring.  Janis wrote,

I was happy to see this article as well — the “ohgodshouldiclap?” anxiety is annoying to audiences, and even to me when I’m sitting there and I know the etiquette. If it’s a slower, quieter work, most people will subdue their applause anyhow — it’s just the fear of looking uncouth that makes people make mistakes. Short of throwing things, I’ve never seen a rock audience applaud “incorrectly.”

At my fall DePauw recital where I invited the audience to clap between movements but told them they didn’t have to, applause after the first movement of the Brahms F Major Sonata felt fine and natural.  After the second movement, it felt a bit forced, as if some felt they had to applaud and perhaps others were enjoying the opportunity to break a rule.  By the time we did the Kabalevsky First Concerto (with piano, which I think is fine on professional recitals, especially since so few of us get to perform concertos with orchestras), there was a natural silence after the slow movement which I appreciated.

Last week, I heard Stephen Hough do an electrifying performance of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony.  Absolutely sensational, and there was enthusiastic applause after the first movement in which I has happy to join.  There was a slight disdainful look from a man a few seats down!  But what could be more natural than applauding after the rousing finish to that movement.  If I remember correctly, there was no applause after the second movement. (I had thought about initiating applause after the first movement of the Beethoven Second Symphony, but didn’t quite have the leadership energy to do so.)

This can work.  But not for everyone, not everywhere.

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Filed under applause, concert ettiquete