Category Archives: Traditional 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)



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

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.

Leave a comment

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