Category Archives: Venues

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

Winning at Roulette: An Evening Not for the Faint of Heart

After the Clogs/Brooklyn Youth Chorus Ecstatic Music Festival concert, I went into serious-cellist mode. Wednesday March 16, my performance with the International Street Cannibals, was looming. (It went well, and I was not eaten alive, thanks for asking, nor was anyone else.) Until then, I rehearsed, practiced my ass off, and besides taking my daughter out to see The King’s Speech (I really didn’t think two hours about speech therapy could be riveting, but it is), stayed pretty much at home.

Monday I had a session with my terrific personal trainer, Chris.  Sunday I’d thought to send him a text message.  “Big concert Wednesday night.  Anything but arms tomorrow–have to have full use of them until Thursday.”  When Chris works you out, well, there might not be all that much left the next day or two.  So we did legs, and while walking was still less than fully comfortable Wednesday, the upper body was functioning at full capacity.

So it was Thursday the 17th when I finally got back on the subway to go to another concert.  I went down to the all-too-close subway station (just half a block from my building) a bit later than was comfortable and immediately went into impatient, why-won’t-the-train-come-right-now-like-magic mode.  I even found myself doing the thing I think is so stupid when performed by others: leaning over and peering into the darkness of the tunnel to see if a train is coming.  Like that’s going to help.  Watched pots don’t boil, looked for trains don’t emerge.  So I relaxed, and the express train did come.  Soon I was at 14th St., transferred to the local, and almost before I knew it emerged on Canal St. with plenty of time to make it to Greene St.

That’s where Roulette, my destination for the evening, is. I’d been thinking of it as an “alternate venue” for classical music.  But really it’s a long-standing “downtown” new-music venue.  At some location or another, it’s been presenting new (avant garde, experimental, contemporary, etc.) music for three decades.  I put “downtown” in quotes only because many of us not from New York, especially those more anchored in traditional classical music, aren’t aware that one of the many music cultures in Gotham is the downtown music scene.  Downtown music developed in  the 1960s (when else?) in lofts and small spaces in places like Roulette’s Canal and Greene Streets location.  Factories were closing, buildings vacant, and rents cheap.  Now, on the border of SoHo and Tribeca, it’s one of the most expensive, highest-income neighborhoods of Manhattan.  Artists led the revitalization; today, they are priced out of the neighborhood.  Roulette, not surprisingly, is moving to Brooklyn.

The program was (mostly) new piano music by Christian Wolff, Michael Byron, and Larry Polansky, performed by Joseph Kubera and Marilyn Nonken (tremendous pianists).  No one was waiting for Sufjan Stevens here. This was terrific, no-holds-barred, complex, intellectually-challenging, frequently atonal, irregularly metered, hard-to-follow-unless-you-throw-yourself-into-it new music.  The kind of stuff that music students groan about having to study.

I loved it.

It was, in its own way, like a really good workout with Chris, my trainer.  Takes you places you didn’t know about.  Pushes you past limits you didn’t know you had. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “Book of Horizons is not for the faint of heart,” explained the program note, which continued, “‘Retreat is not an option,’ challenges the composer.” No kidding.

There’s a delicious integrity to a place like Roulette.  So much of the classical world is trying to figure out how to appeal to a broader audience.  Become more accessible.  Sell more tickets.  Make more money.  All that is important in the larger world.  But not at Roulette.  Want to play there?  Apply.  Read the guidelines.

Our programming focus includes avant jazz, experimental music, experimental electronic music, multimedia music projects, and new music among other forms of new and experimental music.  We do not program rock, pop, musical theater, singer-song writers, or any other form of commercial music.

So it’s not the kind of place you’re likely to hear Gabriel Kahane performing his CraigsList Leider.  That’s fine;  the world needs all sorts of venues. The place really filled up, too, with older folks like me and a good sprinkling of young composer/serious new music types.

Christian Wolff’s Exercise 20 (Acres of Clams) started the concert, performed by both Kubera and Nonken (two pianos).  The oldest piece on the program, it was composed in 1980.  It’s a set of variations on “a song sung by a New-England-based, non-violent activist group called The Clam Shell Alliance, which occupied the site of the Seabrook (New Hampshire) Nuclear Power Plant in 1977.” It included a bit of whistling and some moments with percussion toys.  I’d love to have been following the score to see how much was strictly notated and what was aleatoric.  The program note (by Amy C. Beal) explained that it’s a piece which focuses “on sensitivity, coordination, and communication between the players, often in what Wolff has referred to as ‘democratically indeterminate’ ways.” I’m all for indeterminacy, especially the democratic kind.

Michael Byron’s Book of Horizons was written in 2009, but this was its premiere.  Just one piano, played by Kubera. Five movements, with programmatic titles.  “Unknown Americans” was very contrapuntal.  “Porcelain Nights” had many arpeggiated figures, and often sounded pentatonic, although not strictly so.  “Like the Eyes of the Bride” had me writing “pointillistic . . . short gestures . . . short scale riffs . . . punctuating chords.”  “A World Full of Hope” was rhapsodic, with bell-like passages  The final movement, “Appearances and Architraves,” returned to short gestures and complex textures.  (Whew!  Writing notes in the program helps. What, you don’t know what an architrave is? I didn’t either.) Great variety, and indeed “not for the faint of heart”!

Lots of chatting at intermission. Many people knew each other;  it’s a hub of the downtown new music scene, after all, and there was a bit of a clubhouse feel. Another blogger introduced me to someone.  “Oh, Eric Edberg.  You’re a writer, right?”  And it’s funny, while I was glad he’d heard of me, what came out of my mouth was, “I’m a cellist.  And I write a blog.”  (Some identity issues going on, I see.)

The second half of the concert was Larry Polansky’s 2007 Three Pieces for Two Pianos, also having its premiere.  (Serious composers don’t hold their breath waiting for a new piece to get performed.)  No programmatic titles in this work:

I
II
III (Canon in four voices)

But just when I thought I’d found an oasis free of genre-melding music, here came Stephen Foster’s “Comrades Raise No Glass for Me” in the second movement!  Well, it wasn’t really genre-melding.  Quoting a song is different than synthesizing idioms.  As Amy C. Beal’s very informative program notes explained, Polansky explores “purely musical puzzles (‘interrupted tuplets,’ ‘stretching’ a song by independently varying exponential curves, probabilisitically morphing modes, and more).”  OK, if you understand that, you’re probably named Polansky!

The complex first movement, Foster-free, is “an homage to [Henry] Cowell’s Rhythmicana as well as an expression of Polansky’s faith in the pianists’ Kubera’s ability to play very difficult rhythms.”  Very difficult, indeed.  But faith (in the sense of belief without evidence) was not needed–the evidence of skill was overwhelming.  The last movement draws on computer-music techniques, according to the notes, but just how I’m not sure.  Regardless, we all loved it, the performers, and their performance.  As an encore they played one of piece’s the optional “Interloods.” Which one, I’m not sure.  If you’re playing “Meditation from Thais,” that’s pretty easy to announce.  If it’s viiitviiniiivii(iii) (“moving out”) (tooaytood #15c) (one of the “unusual titles” of the Interloods) you just play the thing.

You know, lots of classical musicians hate this sort of stuff.  Some people think that the dominance of this sort of challenging, not-easy listening music in the post-WWII years helped kill off a wide audience for new music.  Maybe it did.  But did I ever enjoy this concert, in all its who-cares-if-you-listen glory.

When I left Roulette, I noticed a plaque on a nearby building.

Fluxhouse plaque on Greene St.

It was the second Fluxhouse.  And I took the best photo my iPhone could in the streetlight, just for Jon Silpayamanant, my former student and much admired colleague (and by far the most frequent commenter on this blog), with whom I would have loved to have shared the entire evening.  He would have appreciated even more than I.

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Filed under Christian Wolff, Downtown Music, Fluxhouse, Jon Silpayamanant, Joseph Kubera, Larry Polansky, Marilyn Nonken, Michael Byron, Non-traditional Venues, Pianists, Roulette

Alarm Will Sound’s 1969 at Zankel: What Is a Musician’s Responsibilty to Society?

It’s an exciting time to be in New York–so much new music of the uncategorizable, genre-mating, mash-up, remix sort that is at least a very big part of the future of classical music.  The Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin, the amazing Tully Scope festival, the Tune-In Music Festival at the Park Avenue Armory, the contemporary classical events at [le] poisson rouge, and other independent events . . . I’m still trying to get everything I’ve been to so far written about.

Thursday night (March 10) brought perhaps the most mashed-up event yet, practically an entire festival in itself, to a sold-out Zankel Hall (the 599-seat contemporary space in the basement of Carnegie Hall). Alarm Will Sound‘s 1969 is a multimedia music/theater/film piece, inspired by reports that the Beatles and Karlheiz Stockhausen, one of the great avant-garde composers of the time, almost met (but didn’t) to plan a joint concert.  Now that would have been something. (There were excellent preview feature articles in the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal. Great, entertaining, program notes here.)

Alarm Will Sound’s 1969 Version of The Beatle’s Revolution No. 9:

Three video screens–one on each side of the stage, and one above the orchestra, conducted by its artistic director, Alan Pierson.  Three professional actors, playing John Lennon, Luciano Berio (another major avant-garde composer of the time), and Stockhausen.  Members of the ensemble speaking, acting, and singing;  bassonist Michael Harley was particularly impressive singing selections from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, and also played Lenny himself.  Video footage and/or projected stills of of Lennon, Nixon, Berio, Stockhausen, Bernstein, Vietnam-War scenes and protests, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, FBI files, Daniel Berrigan and others, etc.  Music by The Beatles, Stockhausen, Berio, Gavin Chuck, John Stafford Smith (who wrote the tune used for “The Star-Spangled Banner”) as arranged by Jimi Hendrix and then Miles Brown, Miles Brown himself, Kennon/Ono, Robert Dennis/Peter Schickele/Stanley Walden (a number from Oh! Calcutta!), and the world premiere of Swimming (a mash-up itself of Berio, Bernstein and the Beatles) by Stefan Freund (Alarm Will Sound’s cellist, a composition professor at the University of Missouri).

The "1969" Stage with Berio, Lennon, and Stockhausen, from the NY Times

An enormous sixties-like collage of music, images, and performance art, most of the music presented in excerpts, much with talking, acting, video happening at the same time.  Genres and artistic disciplines melded indeed.

I turned eleven in 1969.  I remember vividly watching from Royal Oak the smoke of the Detroit riots of 1967 (and the insensitive racism of some of the white, supposedly-liberal suburbanites in my parents’ circle of family and friends–“the niggers are burning down their own neighborhood,” one of my uncles would laughingly quote another relative for years after).  The King and Robert Kennedy assassinations in 1968.  The fear and anger over the Vietnam War.  The hippie movement.  The idealism of the peace movement.

That powerful mix of fear, anger, and idealism.  It came across so well in Thursday’s 1969, so potent in comparison with today’s apathy. Berio, in this production, constantly harping on the composer’s responsibility to society.  Bernstein proclaiming “a new eclecticism is at hand,” perhaps forty years before it really began to take hold among what appears to be a critical mass of today’s young classically-trained, rock-loving composers. Lennon, “Politics bores me,” inviting people to relax, love, and imagine.

What an enormous, complicated undertaking to develop, plan, and execute this!  An amazing adventure, a magnificent experiment.  Steve Smith reviewed it for the NY Times (as soon as I finish this post I’ll let myself read his piece), as did Kevin Berger for the LA Times and NY law professor Arthur Leonard on his blog.

My personal reaction? As amazing as it all was, as a theater piece it lacked dramatic focus, and the large number of non-professional actors acting was, at times, distracting. I kept thinking, “Oh, it’s a musician reading these lines. Pretty good job”  Same thing with much of the instrumentalists’ singing; some was fantastic, some strained.  At intermission and after, people (at least the ones I talked to) were talking about how surprising it was that such and such a player could sing so well, rather than about what they sang.

Musically it was a big mash-up. At times I wanted more sense of musical structure and cohesion, but quite obviously the mixed-up, kaleidoscopic array was much of the point, and very much in keeping with the late-1960s spirit. There was a bit of self-important pomposity about it, also in keeping with the spirit of the late-sixties Lennon, Stockhausen, Bernstein, Berio, et al.  It felt, to me, more than a bit preachy.  The significant amounts of non-professional-level singing and acting reminded me, at times, of a really good, extremely high-budget amateur or student production.

Incredible energy, idealism, and enthusiasm. The video work and sound production was amazing. The audience loved it.  I’m fascinated by it and the extraordinary creative process that produced it.  I’m thrilled that Carnegie Hall presented it–a major venue embracing something new and experimental.  And most of all, I’m grateful to have attended it.  Since I left the performance, I’ve been asking myself what a musician’s responsibility to society is in times like these, in times like those.  And what does that have to do with how people like me teach and train young musicians?  An evening that produces a shift like that is an evening more than well spent.

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Filed under Alarm Will Sound, Carnegie Hall, Ensembles, Traditional Venues, Venues, Zankel Hall