Pittsburgh

My Pittsburgh concert seems to have been a big success. But I don’t like the way that reads — so let me change it to say, “Our Pittsburgh concert seems to have been a big success.” Because one thing brought home to me by doing this is how much teamwork is involved. The team in this case was pretty small, consisting just of me; the conductor, Daniel Meyer (who’s the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Assistant Conductor); Genevieve Code Twomey, the Orchestra Manager; Robert Moir, the Artistic Administrator; and a very few other people. In the past, the Symphony has done programs like this — introductory concerts for people who don’t usually go to classical events — with actors and a director, but this time it was just me and some of their key staff.

Everyone was fabulous to work with, and brought an amazing assortment of skills to the project, including things you might not normally find in their job descriptions, like lighting design and stage direction. And I needed their help. As host for the concert, I was, in a very real sense, doing a performance on stage. I had to follow a script, without adding to it, apart from very short ad libs here and there, because if the concert ran too long, the Symphony would have to pay the musicians overtime. And I had to know at all times exactly where I was on stage and where I ought to go next, because otherwise I’d trip over Dan, or over members of the orchestra, or crash into the stool at the front of the stage, where I sat when the music was playing.

To follow the script, I needed to watch a teleprompter, something I’d never done before, and which can be daunting, because if I stared at it too fixedly, everybody would know that I was reading. So essentially I had to “cheat,” as actors or opera singers would put it, glancing often at the teleprompter while I seemed to be looking elsewhere. Opera singers do the same thing when they watch the conductor; they normally face elsewhere, but always know where the conductor is and what he or she is doing. And while I did sing opera on stage many years ago, working with a teleprompter is trickier and also new to me; without expert direction from the Pittsburgh staff, I wouldn’t have been as easy or effective as I needed to be. It’s impressive to see how much talent an orchestra can field, even backstage, and it’s instructive, I think, to see how few people do such a large number of jobs.

The musicians, too, were wonderful to work with. Of course, this is one of the world’s top orchestras; I’ve heard them under their music director, Mariss Jansons, and I’ve written in The Wall Street Journal about how they just about knocked me out. What I didn’t know, though, was how glowing their playing can be even in rehearsal for a concert like this one, under a conductor who isn’t Jansons. I’ve heard other major orchestras rehearse, and they didn’t play with this much happiness. The musicians also were friendly and supportive, something you might not get from every orchestra doing a concert of this kind. They were even supportive after I asked them to put up with something unusual — but more on that later.

What I learned most was something very important for this blog, and for much of what I do elsewhere — I learned how successful a concert like this can be. We really can introduce classical orchestral music to new listeners in a completely entertaining way, but without dumbing it down, without playing only hackneyed, simple, or sentimental repertoire, and without making cheap jokes that have nothing to do with the music. Or at least Dan, Bob Moir, and I thought we’d done that, and members of the orchestra I spoke to afterward seemed to agree.

The secret? Well, let me step back a little, and introduce the program. The concept behind it (something I came up with, and then fleshed out in collaboration with Bob) was to play music with a meaning that goes beyond the concert hall — and, in some cases, music that wasn’t written with anything like our formal, silent concert halls in mind. So the program was this:

  • Handel, Royal Fireworks Music, overture [written for a grand outdoor celebration]

  • Rossini, La Gazza Ladra overture [written, with raucous percussion, for an audience who'd scream out their approval or their scorn]

  • Mozart, “Paris” Symphony (Symphony No. 31), first movement [written for an audience that applauded the moment they heard anything they liked]

  • Mahler, Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony [intended, perhaps, as a secret portrait of Mahler's wife Alma]

  • Shostakovich, Tenth Symphony, second movement [intended as a secret portrait of Stalin]

  • Ravel, Bolero [thanks to the movie 10, we think it's about sex -- but it had exactly the same meaning in Ravel's time]

The first thing I’d say is that this is all terrific music. It’s also very varied, and has an appealing flow that I didn’t know would be there, and didn’t appreciate until I heard the music played in its proper order at the concert. (The flow owed a lot, I think, to Bob’s long programming experience.)

And while most of the music is quite well known, and some of it — Bolero for sure, and maybe also the Adagietto — might seem too familar, two of the pieces aren’t obvious choices at all: the Mozart and the Shostakovich. The Shostakovich also isn’t comforting or pretty; it’s scary and relentless, meant (if we believe Testimony, Shostakovich’s purported memoirs) as a portrait of the dread and ghastly Joseph Stalin. (I do believe those memoirs, in part because two eminent Russians, Yuri Temirkanov, who conducted Shostakovich’s music in the Soviet years, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose poetry Shostakovich set to music in his 13th Symphony, told me they heard Shostakovich say many of the things that were printed in the book.) So the program, even though it’s of course designed to be easy to digest, isn’t as easy as it might be.

And then there’s how the music got introduced. I wrote the things I said to introduce it (with very helpful editing by Bob, and lots of cuts and tweaks that all of us made cooperatively when we saw how the script played out in rehearsal, and how long each section took). I didn’t follow any plan; all I did was try to find things about each piece that were interesting and sometimes unexpected, and which supported our theme.

But after the concert, I realized that we’d stumbled on something better than we’d planned. Most of what I said seemed to underline things that we can hear in the music. So instead of just telling a few catchy stories about each piece, I found that I’d suggested ways to listen to it, without ever making any overt educational remarks. By some stroke of luck, I think I found a frame for each piece that highlighted the music’s essential quality.

Take the Royal Fireworks, for instance. Kevin Shuck, whose title with the Symphony is Operations Assistant, had found quite wonderful pictures to illustrate each piece. Among them was a very self-assured, not to say self-important, portrait of Handel:

As I said to the audience, “He looks exactly like what he was — a formidably famous man, caught here in a moment when he seems to be very pleased with himsef.”

Then I had some fun explaining the history of the piece. It was written for a huge outdoor celebration, which the king staged to celebrate the end of a war. In my first drafts, I’d recounted some amusing stuff about the king and his desires — he didn’t want strings to play, and though Handel wrote string parts in his score, nobody knows whether strings were actually allowed in the first performance. Strings would have had trouble, in any case, making much noise outdoors, especially since (as I’d also planned to explain) Handel had to make sure the music would be loud, and used a giant orchestra, with 24 oboes, nine trumpets, nine horns, 12 bassoons, and three sets of timpani.

The controversy with the king got cut from the script, though, and so did everything about the composition of the orchestra. (It could have led to an amusing dialogue with Dan, the conductor — how many oboes are we using? — but the required explanations would have taken too much time.)

So instead we focused on the fireworks. I’d found an amazing picture, an engraving from the time that shows how the fireworks were set up. The king’s people built a wooden structure…

…which was 400 feet long and 100 feet high, and on top of it, as you can see, they arrayed the fireworks. But things didn’t work out too well. As one observer wrote at the time: “The illumination lighted so slowly that scarce any body had patience to wait the finishing: and then, what contributed to the awkwardness of the whole, was the right pavilion catching fire, and being burnt down in the middle of the show.”

The audience laughed when I read that; it’s a great story (and, of course, absolutely true). The music, I added, seems to have been overlooked in all the commotion. But then I asked everyone to imagine how spectacular the music would have been, with trumpets blaring, if the fireworks had gone off on schedule. And while, as I’ve said, I really didn’t think much about the precise effect of anything in my script, I think that everything about the Royal Fireworks – from the look on Handel’s face in the picture to the story of the fizzled fireworks — prepared the audience for the pomp and glory of the music.

Not that I’d assume they all couldn’t hear it on their own. But classical music does sound lofty and remote to many people. Some listeners –not very many, I think, but some — really can’t differentiate one mood from another. And some, I believe, hear what’s going on, but don’t trust what they hear, because they think classical music is over their heads. By setting the scene the way we did in Pittsburgh, I think we encouraged people to find the heart of each piece, without beating them up with musical details. (“The melting melodies of Mahler’s strings convey romantic longing…” Yuk!)

It’s true that I suggested that the trumpets made the Handel sound spectacular, but I didn’t say anything like that for any of the other works, and even this Handel comment isn’t as specific as it might be. I didn’t, for instance, say anything about what I the pomp and absolutely unselfconscious self-importance of the music. But my thoughts about Handel’s portrait and the importance of the occasion — to say nothing of the absurd pomp and scale of the structure built to hold the fireworks, which everyone could see in that amazing graphic — set forth the grand stride of the music far better (or so I think) than any merely musical description ever could.

But the most provocative — and certainly the most interesting — moment in the concert was the Mozart. We got our audience to throw our present concert etiquette away, and do what Mozart’s audience had done, with results that need a post of their own to do the whole thing justice. This, of course, is where the orchestra had to cope with something they probably hadn’t encountered before, and their reaction — which I hope to learn more about — is an intriguing part of the story.

I hope, by the way, that this hasn’t sounded too self-serving. I do think we accomplished something really worthwhile, and wanted to explain what I think that was.

We had, by the way, an audience of 1860, according to Pittsburgh’s VP for Sales, Marketing and Customer Service, Sean McBryde. To me — from what I saw both from the stage, and in the lobby before the concert, when I slipped out for a drink and some food — there was a nice mix of ages, from college to white-haired. There were 500 college studnets, Sean says. The audience seemed to love the concert. They went almost wild, at times, and really roared their approval.

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