OK, big traditional halls have their virtues. And this week I’ve been to two of the greatest, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera.
I’ve extolled the virtues of hearing music in clubs. But you really don’t want to hear Beethoven’s Ninth in a cabaret setting. With a full orchestra, four vocal soloists, and a large choir, composed with a great vision and sense of ennobling purpose, a great concert hall is the place for it. (You couldn’t fit all the performers into a club anyway).
It was, after all, the response to Beethoven and his music that solidified the idea that compositions are great works of art and composers great artists. (Lydia Goehr calls this the Beethoven Paradigm, and also coined the phrase “work concept”) Beethoven inspired later composers who, along with him, created the symphonic repertoire that in turn created the need for professional orchestras and large concert halls. (There was also a developing post-industrial-revolution middle class to buy tickets.)
It’s fair to say that Carnegie Hall and its counterparts exist because of and for Beethoven’s music and the works produced by the music-as-great-art explosion he set off.
Monday 1/31 my daughter and me found ourselves at Carnegie for a benefit performance, Beethoven for the Indus Valley: A Concert for Life and Renewal in Pakistan After the 2010 Floods. George Mathew, founder and artistic director of Music for Life International, conducted what was perhaps the world’s greatest pickup orchestra (with musicians from the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, major conservatories, etc.) and the Dessoff Symphonic Choir. It was an enthusiastic and well-done performance, for a wonderful cause.
But what if you give a benefit concert and not many people come? I received two sets of free tickets, one from a dear friend in the choir, the other from friend who had a friend in the orchestra. My daughter and I were on the main floor, called the “orchestra” in most halls and the “Parquet” in Carnegie. That level was a bit over half-full, if that; we were able to move from our side seats to the center, where we had a saddeningly wide choice. The rings of boxes (where I assume major donors were sitting) were full, as I believe were the balcony seats (where choir members had comp seats).
My friend in the choir was thrilled to sing the work and be with this extraordinary set of orchestral musicians, and loved Christopher Shepard, the Dessoff’s music director (she’s not a regular member of the choir). The musicians each donated their services. The phenomenon of all these artists taking the time to perform one of the great works of Western culture for an important cause is inspiring, as is what must be some extraordinary networking skills and connections on the part of Mr. Mathew to bring everyone together. As we waited for my friend to emerge from the stage door, the post-performance exhilaration and glow was evident in so many faces, especially the students, but also the professionals. It is a great thing to experience Beethoven from the inside of a performance, as one of the music makers.
Yet with no big celebrity conductor or soloist, it was a non-event in New York musical culture. It was mentioned in the Times, but not featured or reviewed. The Wall Street Journal had a Donor of the Day profile of Mr. Mathew on the occasion of the concert, but it was more philanthropy news than musical.
It was certainly a very good concert, but not an extraordinary Beethoven’s Ninth. (The level of the orchestra’s performance was amazing, given that they had only two rehearsals.) The empty seats (on the main floor, anyway) gave a feeling of being at a party that people didn’t come to. More than that, the idea of Beethoven’s Ninth as a universally transcendent work of art, the perfect thing for any great cause, doesn’t work for me. As I looked at the slides of Pakistani landscapes and flood victims projected above the orchestra and chorus through the performance, I wanted to hear Pakistani music. To learn something about Pakistani culture.
What if there had been Pakistani music and Beethoven? That would have been something. I probably would have donated money or even bought tickets.
As it was, I was helping give away tickets. And given the all the time, effort, and money donated by so many people, that was a shame.
The next day a friend texted me that he had an extra ticket to the Metropolitan Opera premier of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China Wednesday night (2/2), and would I like to go? Let me think about it . . . duh!
About 7:15 PM Wednesday, as I was nearing the end of a blind-date dinner near Lincoln Center, he called me, chagrined. Only one ticket in the envelope. (He bought a small subscription with a pair of tickets, and some extra single seats for other operas; this turned out to be the latter and not the former.)
He did not offer me his only ticket. Close by, I walked down to Lincoln Center with my supper partner (who was also going to the opera) to see if by some miracle I could find a low-price ticket. The Lincoln Center half-price ticket booth was closed for a private party. In the plaza I came upon a composition student who had gotten a rush ticket for an orchestra seat. He sold me his face-value $27.50 “Family Circle” (very high) seat for $20.
Turns out that the sound is great up there (a musician friend told me she prefers it to the main floor) and there was a full view of the stage. Nixon in China is a fascinating work, and it was given an excellent performance with some absolutely stunning singing (the Washington Post and New York Times reviews offer interesting perspectives). The complicated minimalist score must be incredibly difficult to play, and I was happy not to be in the pit counting all those rhythms. John Adams himself was conducting, in his Met debut. That gladdened my pro-composer/performer heart. (When I leaned forward and over to watch him, he was always dancing.)
Parts of it I got into, parts of it I just didn’t get. A friend suggested to me that perhaps there isn’t anything to get, but obviously there is some there there (apologies to Gertrude Stein). Tonight (Saturday) I have been given a free ticket, on the main floor, so it will be interesting to compare the two seats and see and hear the opera again.
Some reflections on attending these events in big halls after going to small, presumably more social venues:
It felt lonely among the empty seats in Carnegie Hall, but exciting to be in this legendary place and to hear the sort of music for which it was invented. A less than nearly full house saps collective energy, or simply doesn’t build it. Nevertheless, the sense of history and cultural importance in Carnegie is always strong, especially for those who visit it infrequently. My daughter was thrilled to be there for her first time, and to share in that was special.
(Before the concert, a man stopped me on Seventh Avenue. “Where is Carnegie Hall?” he asked. I pointed across the street, disappointed he had not asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” To which I could have answered, in the punch line of the famous joke, “practice.” I thought about asking him to reword his question.)
It was Nixon in China’s Met premier, so there was a great sense of occasion–as well as social stratification. Some of the VIPS in the audience were actually wearing white tie and tails (haven’t seen that before). The Grand Tier, where usually one can get a drink and look at the huge Chagall paintings, was blocked off before, during (the intermissions), and after the performance for a very elaborate dinner. The guy I had dined with earlier commented, during the first intermission, on the very us-and-them/few-separated-from-the-many nature of it. For me it was a sort of, well, zoo-like display of rich and/or connected people showing their wealth and subcultural status.
It was an historic event: John Adams’s Met debut, the director Peter Sellars’s, too, and the acceptance by the Met of a once-controversial work. As Anne Midgette put it in her Post review:
So the evening was about the move from edginess to canonization, from provoking the audience to being embraced by one of the largest institutions in the business. For many in attendance, there was a kind of avuncular pride in seeing a piece they remembered when it was brand-new, now all grown up – a sense of arrival that arguably creates an even bigger thrill than seeing a brand-new work get a Met premiere.
And I was there for it. That’s something I’ll always remember.
During the second intermission, I had a great conversations, first with the friend who didn’t have an extra ticket, and then with a lady a few seats down from me who loves horse racing in Saratoga and Yo-Yo Ma. The couple between us had not returned for the third act and we found each of us was intrigued, sometimes strongly affected, and at other times puzzled or disengaged as we experienced Nixon in China for the first time.
So I had as good a time there, socially, as anywhere else. And having waiters serving food and drink to us in our seats would not have made the music theater experience any better.