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June 16, 2007

A voice we should hear

by Greg Sandow

[These are comments posted in response to a discussion on my own blog. They come from Eric Lin, a college student, whom I don't know. The first part is what he originally posted. He offered the second part as an expansion and clarification. I think what Eric writes is especially relevant to what we're saying here. Lynne, I think you'll really like this!]

I'm still in college studying music (among other things) if that helps: The only 'classical' concerts I regularly go to these days are those with new groups like Alarm Will Sound (or other Miller Theatre concerts which George Steel dreams up). Zankel Hall concerts in New York aren't bad for the most part. The BoaC Marathon this year was fun too--and far from being a traditional concert.

Now, lest anyone accuse me of only likely contemporary music since I'm a composer, I'll admit that I love many works in the Canon. I recently went to hear the Emerson String Quartet play some of the late Beethoven quartets at Carnegie with a friend and I was expecting to really enjoy the concert. It was one of the most horrendous concert experiences I've ever endured, and I'm pretty sure my friend didn't enjoy the night out much either.

We found ourselves surrounded by an audience whose average age is anywhere from 40 to 50 years older than my friend or myself. I'm not in anyway being age discriminatory, but the discomfort was real. I love the late quartets and I was certainly excited to here Rihm's 'contemporary' quartet, yet when the old lady next to me started dozing off, I found myself getting sleepy too. I never would've imagined that I would start falling asleep during a Beethoven quartet.

Sadly, the most energetic period during the whole concert was the standing ovation given to the quartet at the end of the concert. (Some fearless soul gave a timid-yet provocative-clap between the first few movements of the Op. 132...only to give up after he/she was greeted with awkward silence and a few odd gazes. I should've started clapping too.)

I don't think I'm going back to another purely "Classical" performance anytime soon. It's expensive and suffocating. And I like Classical music. My poor friend.


From a musical level, I though the Emerson Quartet's performance was superb. But the disconnect between the energy level on stage and the lack thereof in the audience was rather painful. Honestly, I thought a lot of people looked rather bored; it's a subjective observation, yes, but it's my honest opinion.

I certainly don't attend concerts to nitpick and 'find' what's wrong with them. The cheapest ticket for the concert was 35 bucks, they didn't offer student tickets and I'm a poor college student. I certainly do not have that sort of money or time to do so. I went hoping for an enjoyable night of music.

I've been to concerts where the audience members (both young and old) walked out ACTIVELY talking about how exciting the music was. I remember overhearing some kid my age at a performance of Music for 18 Musicians talking to his kid brother about all the other Reich pieces he's heard and how cool they were AND how the music works (i.e. how phasing works, what minimalism is etc !!!!). There were also older audience members (some of whom were probably the same age as Reich himself and they seemed equally excited).

The whole place was buzzing. As a result, the standing ovation given to So Percussion at the end of the concert felt genuine and I eagerly joined.

Perhaps it's not so much my discomfort with the age of the audience as with the feeling that for a good portion of the audience, going to hear the Emerson Quartet was something routine rather than special. Nobody seemed excited, or perhaps I missed something and they all felt the Beethoven quartets were such introspective music that it should only be received with drooping heads, yawns or a hand on the face, supporting their head.

Perhaps my problem isn't with the presentation but with the audience itself. I'm sure they love Beethoven, but some certainly didn't show it.

So not only do the performers not react to the audience, the audience didn't seem to react much either--until the standing ovation at the end of the concert of course, which ironically also marked the moment when a good portion of the audience started exiting the hall in a rush.

If you know the end of the first movement of Op. 132, it ends with a brief majestic forte coda. Someone started to clap--it was a natural reaction. Yet, the person stopped when nobody else did, because the oppressive cultural police tells us that clapping between movements is improper.

There's a story about Beethoven reportedly calling the audience "Cattle! Asses!" when they requested encores and cheered after the inner movements of op. 130 but not the Grosse Fuge which originally ended the piece. (Ironically, this little anecdote was printed in the even more oppressive program notes.)

I'm not asking for much (I'm really not even complaining about the concert format...); I just wish the audience can and would react more naturally to what is really great and visceral music.

Posted by gsandow at June 16, 2007 9:34 AM


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