A piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (which I noticed when the guy next to me at lunch today had that section of the paper open between us) reports that with the New York City Opera leaving the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic is considering a a temporary move in, if and when money is raised to renovate Avery Fisher Hall.
There are other possibilities in town. “The Koch, however, tops the list, say people familiar with the matter, in part because its eating capacity is close to that of Avery Fisher . . .”
Neither place seems to have that much of an eating capacity to me. Seating capacity, that may be similar.
I had never heard the stunningly-good violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in person before the Thursday March 31 New York Philharmonic concert (that link takes you to a page with program notes, audio, video, etc.). She has a ravishing, intense, into-the-string tone that can make you forget that Avery Fisher Hall is not acclaimed for its acoustics. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, wonderfully. I’d never heard him in person before, either, so the night was a special treat for me. (Steve Smith’s NY Times review is here.)
The Tchaikovsky Second Symphony (“Little Russian”) made up the concert’s second half. During it, I was reminded of a music-history professor with whom I had an in-class tiff when he dismissed the Tchiak Fifth Symphony, about which I was passionate, as “a string of sequences.” “Some composers can take a chain of sequences and make great music,” I snarled at him, “and some people listen to great music and only hear a chain of sequences.” In this performance, the winds and brass were terrific, and although the violins seemed to have a touch of ensemble difficulties in some fast off-the-string passages, the strings were gorgeous. I, to be honest, was only hearing chains of sequences.
Maybe that was because the first half was so terrific. Prokfiev’s Overture in B-flat Major, Op. 42 “American” opened the program. It’s a wind ensemble piece with 2 cellos and a double bass, so no wonder it doesn’t get programmed often. It was commissioned in the 1920s by the Aeolian Duo-Art company for its then-new, small New York concert hall, hence the unusual instrumentation. While I enjoyed it, a friend in the orchestra called it a “justly neglected masterpiece.” Of course, I only heard it once. Still, I found it a fascinating, energetic little thing.
What made the concert worth attending was Sofia Gubaidulina‘s powerful and moving In tempus praesens, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It’s an intense piece,with extended violin soliloquies. As Mutter explains in the video below, the solo violin represents the composer battling with society. Another unusual instrumentation–no violins (other than the soloist), which gave the strings an especially dark, rich sound and allowed the violas plenty of opportunities to shine.
Mutter discusses the piece:
The friend who took me to the concert didn’t enjoy the concerto, at least while she listened to it. She’s not familiar with a lot of contemporary music and I think she found it disconcerting. But after the performance she said, “You know, I liked the violin concerto the best. It seemed strange at first, but now I realize it was really powerful.” Often it takes repeated hearings to get used to new musical language and be affected by it; this was an interesting case of impact after the fact. Or maybe something about those Tchaikovsky sequences made Gubiadulina’s brilliance apparent in retrospect.
Speaking of that compositional brilliance, here’s a fascinating video (which I found on Alex Ross’s blog) in which Gubaidulina discusses her complicated creative process.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times keeps, well, complaining that he can’t figure out the “theme” of the recent Tully Scope festival here in New York. “But the theme of the festival was hard to discern,” he writes, referring back to the opening event in his enthusiastic review of the final concert (which I blogged about here). “And at its conclusion the theme of Tully Scope still seemed amorphous,” he continues later. In his review of the opening event he says,
I cannot figure out what the point of this festival is supposed to be. In a program note Jane Moss, the vice president for programming at Lincoln Center, writes that TullyScope is “an international bazaar,” a “discovery of all that is wonderful about New York’s musical life.” It is also, she adds, “about a very special new musical home at Lincoln Center.” Fair enough, but terribly vague.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. Somehow I doubt Mr. Tommasini uses the shuffle feature on his iPod (if he has one) to experience a randomly-ordered, surprising-filled juxtaposition of music. If he did, this may have made more sense to him.
There wasn’t a central, organizing musical focus, like the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Manifest Legacy: Beethoven and Brahms series, which ran concurrently with Tully Scope in the same hall. You might say that it was a festival “about nothing,” as the now-ancient sitcom Seinfeld (set in New York) was often described. Which means, that like Seinfeld, it was a festival about everything. A kind of musical buffet in which one could sample all sorts of new things. The lack of a central musical point was the point. It was a celebration of musical diversity. New music, old music. Superstars like Emmanuel Ax and Jordi Savall. New York-based up-and-comers like Tyondai Braxton and Brooklyn Rider.
Closing his review of the final concert, he does hit on what I think some of we older music-types may miss the significance of:
After the concert, as with all the Tully Scope events, the audience gathered in the lobby and mingled, given glasses of sparkling wine. You were surrounded by animated conversations about the music. Lincoln Center should find a way to keep this welcome innovation of Tully Scope going.
Absolutely. As Greg Sandow points out in his post on the final concert,
People normally go out at night to have an experience. They want to do something that’ll be fun, or meaningful, something they think they’ll enjoy, that will mean something to them.
Yes, yes, yes. This added so much to the experience. I ended up meeting and chatting with someone after every concert I attended, which would not have happened without the space or without the free drink. In a comment on Greg’s post, Linda writes,
This is what “The Experience Economy” is all about. People (especially in the sought after 25-40 age group) want to buy into a complete experience, preferably one in which they can interact with other people, rather than be passive “receivers.”
The other aspect of the “complete experience,” which the reviews I’ve seen have overlooked, is Tully Scope’s fascinating use of staging and lighting design. I keep commenting on it in my blog posts because I’m realizing it’s so important and so many of us interested in the future of classical music aren’t thinking (enough) about it. What I’ve really gotten during my time here in New York is that concerts are much more visual than people my age (50+) tend to realize, or would like to be the case. For younger audiences, the visual is an important component of the complete experience.
People who just want to hear good music can stay home and listen to the inexhaustible supply of nearly a century’s worth of extraordinary recordings. Complete, interactive experiences that are humanizing and foster human connection need to engage more than just the ears. If, of course, you want more than a handful of people to attend.
(Been traveling, mostly without Internet access. How did NY concert life get along without me in attendance?)
Last thing I attended in NY was the final Tully Scope concert, featuring music of Heiner Goebbels. Fascinating, eclectic music performed by not one but two orchestras, the London Sinfonetta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the latter on (at least mostly) period instruments, both conducted by Anu Tali. [Update: NY Times (Tomasini) review here.]
I ended up, pretty much by chance, sitting with Greg Sandow. As he wrote about here and here, he was quite excited by the size and mix of the audience, and impressed by the eclecticism of the series. Greg writes that it was the Festival, not the artists themselves, that Lincoln Center marketed.
They didn’t advertise programming or stars, didn’t stress the names of the performers or the composers whose music they were going to play. They marketed the festival. Which for me is crucial. People normally go out at night to have an experience. They want to do something that’ll be fun, or meaningful, something they think they’ll enjoy, that will mean something to them.
Greg’s on the money there, although I’d disagree about the advertising. They marketed the festival and the individual artists. My own take is that it was a pretty even mix of both. Certainly many–perhaps all–of the individual performers/groups have their own, significant followings. Emanuel Ax certainly has his fan base, and Tyondai Braxton, for example, has another. The promo emails I received, especially the ones advertising 50%-off tickets available at the Rubenstein Atrium, and posters I saw featured the performers and composers, as did the Google ads that appear at the top of my email. What seems to have worked here is that the followings got mashed up.
I picked the more non-traditional events to attend, since that’s my particular interest right now, but by the end of the series I wished I’d been to all the concerts and experienced the entire mix. As the festival progressed, and perhaps before it began, there may have been many of us who having been to one great event, decided to trust that the others would be worthwhile as well, even if the concert wasn’t one we’d usually pick on its own. As the followings got intermingled, probably each of us found him or herself a new fan of someone they hadn’t heard (or heard of) before. It was the entire “mash-up” (as Jane Moss, the Vice President for Programming called it in her program note) that was the thing.
I’ve called [le] poisson rouge a “shuffle venue,” where some people go just to be there, because it’s a cool place and they trust that whatever/whoever is playing will be good. (“Shuffle” coming from the iPod function where different, often unrelated, tracks are played in random order in a way that beings often interesting and pleasant surprises and juxtapositions.)
Tully Scope was what you might call a shuffle series: a seemingly random mix of widely divergent, terrific performances, which you just wanted to hear–and see–all of.
The gorgeous Tully lobby is a great place to hang out–that’s so important in these changing times. Free glass of sparkling wine after the concerts, creating a party atmosphere. And tickets just $20, once one was purchased at full price, a great incentive to buy a package. Didn’t do that? There were half-price tickets for many of the events available on the day of the performance. So it was affordable.
The very different staging and lighting designs for each event were engaging and, to me, delightful. It was like a different hall for each event. The final Goebbels concert had a two-tiered stage, with strings on the stage and winds, brass, and percussion on connected risers the width of the stage about 3 feet high. Quite striking. So were the lighting cues, which made heavy use of different colors, spotlights, fading, etc., even floor lamps.
This was not just people playing and/or singing on a stage. This was an event where the visual aspect, the theatrical aspect, was embraced in a significant way.
We are increasingly creatures of YouTube, for better or worse. We live in not just a music iPod culture, but a video iPod culture. Audiences under forty, and especially under thirty–who are so crucial to develop–want, even need, visual stimulation and engagement. The folks at Tully did a great job, among other things, of providing that.