Last night at Le Poisson Rouge (the NY club where I seem to go all the time, to hear classical music) a cellist named Joshua Roman came on stage. He said hello, in the friendliest, most club-appropriate way, and then said he’d play the prelude from the third Bach cello suite. “If you know it,” he added (or words to this effect), “you know what I mean. And if you don’t know it, you’re about to hear it!”
First, when you pay Bach in a club, it stops mattering whether you’ve played with correct Baroque style, or what fancy details of structure and history someone might elucidate in a program note. What matters is whether you communicate, which Roman certainly did. This doesn’t mean that those of us who care about Baroque style should stop caring. You can hear blues in a club, and argue till dawn about blues style. But any talk about Baroque style now comes inside an expectation that communication will take place.
Second, it really matters how you talk, how you introduce yourself, how you behave on stage. Again, communnication is what we’re going to expect. Roman knew exactly how to relate to his club audience. But two weeks ago, at the opening concert of the MATA new music festival at LPR, I heard a musical group whose members didn’t know what to do in a club.
This was The Knights, based in Brooklyn, and full of energetic young musicians whose website talks about their “unique atmosphere of camaraderie” and their “sense of openness, warmth and trust” that “translates into an amazing amount of freedom, spontaneity and joy in performance.” And they’re completely sincere in saying this.
But at LPR, they came off as stiff. Why? Because they acted as if they were giving a classical concert. They didn’t speak to the audience. They bowed when they got applause, instead of saying “thank you.” They all dressed in black. Granted, it was informal black, looking a little different on each member of the group. But bands playing at clubs don’t normally dress in any uniform way. (I remember some Juilliard students of mine, years ago, playing in a club for the first time. They dressed in black, informally by concert standards. As soon as they got to the club and saw the other bands on the bill, they felt like geeks.)
And the Knights had a conductor! Maybe some or all of the music they played needed one, but this was the final straw. It made them look impossibly formal. Which was sad. I kept thinking that if they were playing in a formal concert hall, looking and acting exactly as they looked at LPR, they might have come off as refreshingly informal. But at a club, with the far more informal expectations that a club creates, they looked and even sounded stiff (though they certainly played very well technically). In one piece, Product No. 1, a mildly crazy work by Andrew Hamilton — in which the group both played and sang music that sounded more or less like a Bach chorale, getting faster and faster and faster — they didn’t have a conductor, and at last they relaxed.
I thought I saw where the problem might come from, when MATA’s executive director Missy Mazzoli spoke during the performance. This, too, was exactly what it might have been at Tully Hall, an official of the group coming out to address the audience, behaving exactly as she might have in a formal concert setting. She talked, understandably, about MATA’s mission, which is to further the work of young composers. But not about putting on a show! The mission, I thought, came first.
This is hardly a surprise. The mission has come first for all the nearly 40 years I’ve been going to concerts of new classical music, and the thought that there might be an audience whose opinion mattered, and which ought to have a good time at these concerts, is really quite new. Not surprising, then, that the concert (apart from the Andrew Hamilton piece, and even though some of the other works were lively, and even had a beat), felt like a mission, and not like a show.
(I’m not saying, by the way, that all club performancers have to be friendly to their audience. Miles Davis wasn’t, as more or less everyone knows. But an unfriendly club performer is unfriendly within a frame where communication is the norm. In effect, Davis might have been saying, “Well, you MFs think I’m going to talk to you, but I’m not.” Whereas the Knights seemed to be saying, “Hi, we’re at a concert, we’ll bow.”)
Back to the YouTube Symphony. The musicians had a terrific time doing this club show, playing all kinds of music, while the very prominent young composer Mason Bates officiated as DJ, and sometimes as collaborator, improvising (as it seemed) with electronics while some of the musicians played.
There was lots of energy, even though the musicians had been rehearsing hard, had been interviewed by press from around the world, and had a concert to give the next night. (This was Tuesday, April 14; the concert was the next day, the day I’m writing this.) But at the same time, the performances — apart from Roman and Mason Bates — were largely nothing special, apart from the ease that almost everybody showed in the club setting. (Exception: a flutist in a spiffy off the shoulder black dress, who would have looked fine — here’s that refrain again — on the concert stage, but seemed too formal for the club.)
So I thought that any orchestra could give a club show like this. I don’t say that to demean the YouTube Orchestra, which at the very least is setting new high marks for media interest in classical music. And which actually had a club night for its musicians, which most orchestras haven’t had. Instead, I think the YouTube orchestra should be an inspiration. If they can have a club night, why not your local orchestra? Why not have one every month? It’s fun, and can only make friends for you.
One last note. We’ve talked on this blog (here and here) about informal performances, and about audiences that audibly react, or talk while the music’s playing. Understandably, some people worry that if the audience talks, people who want to hear the music won’t be able to listen properly.
At LPR, informal though it is, I’ve never heard much talking. The audience, whether or not they’re used to classical music (and even once when a string quartet asked everyone to “get rowdy”), listens very quietly. But not at the YouTube night! There, for the first time at LPR, I heard a steady stream of conversation, from an open area in the club, between the tables and the bar.
And who was talking there? Some of the YouTube musicians. And some of the honchos involved in the performance, from YouTube and from Google, YouTube’s owner, and from other major groups involved in all of this. Go figure!
The talking, I discovered, didn’t bother me at all. I could hear the music easily, and just blocked out the background conversations, which in any case (while I sat at my table) weren’t happening right near me. Nor do I blame the people who were talking. It was their night out, toward the end of a very busy and exciting week. They had every right to cut loose.
But still, it’s a lesson to us. Some of us worry that if we let the audience talk, it’ll talk too much. And here the audience did talk a lot — but the people talking were the musicians themselves.