Category Archives: Gunther Schuller

YCA Marathon: Everything Right and Everything Wrong

Oy!  I’ve been to so many concerts in the last 9 days and want to write about them all.  Just a quick comment on one before I go off to the 7-hour marathon honoring Gunther Schuller at Symphony Space (which I can see from my NY bedroom window).

I was at Symphony Space on Saturday for part of the 12(!)-hour marathon concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Young Concert Artists.  Through an annual competition, YCA finds exceptional young classical artists whom it then nurtures, providing debut recitals and management for three years.

I heard the last two movements of the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence string sextet, performed by big names Ani (violin) and Ida (viola) Kafavivan, Toby Apel (viola), and Carter Brey (cello)), who were joined by the younger artists Ju-Young Baek (violin) and Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello).  Then came the “Chopin Hour,” with pianists Wendy Chen, Sergei Edelmann, Mona Golabek, and Edward Auer.  Then the Prokofiev D Major Violin Sonata with Dmitri Berlinsky, violin and Sergei Edelmann, piano.  After the first movement of the Schumann Piano Quintet (Chee-Yun and Stefan Milenkovich, violin;s Nokuthula Ngwenyama, viola; Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello; and, I think, Hung-Kuan Chen, piano–there was a different pianist for each movement and I’ve misplaced my program) I had to leave for other commitments.

Great playing by everybody, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Let me be clear, given what I’m about to write.  I loved it.

And as I sat there, I thought to myself this is everything that’s right with classical music and everything that’s wrong with it, right here.

What was right?  Beautiful, great music.  Played with extraordinary technical accomplishment, love, and care by everyone.  Fine, thoughtful musicianship.  Infectious joie de vivre, especially among the Tchaikovsky players. Big-name artists, rising fabulous young performers.  And the whole thing was free.

What was wrong?  Nothing, really.  But it was clear why these sorts of concerts don’t attract a younger audience (most of the audience looked as if they’d attended YCA concerts for the last 50 years and may have started in middle age at that). Here are the things that struck me:

  • Dry acoustics, no amplification.  I just don’t see attracting new audiences to halls with bad acoustics and no amplification
  • Lack of visual interest. You can argue that a concert shouldn’t [need to] be visually interesting, but it’s becoming quite obvious that this doesn’t work for younger generations.  Having been to some great concerts recently that were visually fascinating, the difference was very noticeable to me.
  • A host (a different one was scheduled for each two-hour segment) who made comments to the audience.  Not a bad idea in and of itself. The host while I was there, whom I’m purposely not naming, was very pleasant, but the comments weren’t well-planned, and often were along the lines of, “the next performer is ___.  Is he back there? Ready?”  So it gave a kind of nicely-informal but also amateur-hour feel to the thing.  This is not a standard feature of most classical concerts, in which often no one talks to or with the audience, but it did, to me, symbolize how little attention we often pay to production values and effectiveness when we do speak.  Let me emphasize that it wasn’t really bad, and it was pleasant.  It just wasn’t the sort of thing to make you want to bring  your college-age kid later in the evening. And the informality of the host’s comments was at odds with the stiff formality of some of stage presence of some of the performers, especially the pianists.
  • Short, clearly unplanned interviews with a player or players,which again were not the sort of thing you’d brag about having heard. One resulted in a long, boring, softly-told (cries of “louder!” from the audience until the microphone was held closer to the story-teller’s mouth) anecdote (climaxing in someone’s music getting blown off a piano–wow! hilarious!).  Also confessions of/bragging about lack of rehearsal time.  We learned the Tchaikovsky had one three hour rehearsal (“but we’ve all played it many times before!”).  Isn’t that something?  There were some amazed “oohs” from some of the audience.  And players of this level can read through a piece they know, decide on some bowings, and make great music on one rehearsal.  But is that the best thing to be telling an audience?  When asked how much they’d worked on the Prokofiev, one of the players (for whom English is not his first language) replied, “This is our first time playing together.”  From the not-quite together ending of the second movement, I could imagine that they hadn’t rehearsed (although I don’t think that’s what he meant to say). Fine, fine, fine.  Just don’t tell me about it.

My daughter, a college sophomore, joined me for dinner and we were spending the evening together.  I enjoyed the music I heard in the afternoon, and would have loved to have gone back for a good chunk of the evening.  But I knew she’d be probably be bored, and it would have been a very hard sell.  Come on, honey, let’s go over and to hear people play music on stage with a boring black backdrop curtain, dry acoustics, formal stage presence (much of the time) and then they’ll tell us how much they didn’t rehearse!  What, you don’t want to go out in the 50-mile-an-hour windstorm for that?  You’d rather order in and watch the Law and Order SVU marathon and House?

And see, if it had been just me, I would have been thrilled to go.  But I couldn’t get my daughter–and this was a father-daughter night–excited about that tremendous, traditional concert the way I can about going to see something with cool lighting at a place like [le] poisson rouge.  And that, folks, is the dilemma and challenge before us.

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Filed under Gunther Schuller, Le Poisson Rouge, Symphony Space, Young Concert Artists