June 3, 2012

Crazy, nutty audiences I have known

For a performer, audiences are one of the reasons we get out of bed in the morning.  I mean, performing is only performing if someone is there to hear it, right?  And ideally, the listeners should include someone other than one's Mom.  Without the audience, music-making is a little like becoming a great chef and only cooking for yourself.  Not a lot of fun to eat rack of lamb standing over the kitchen sink, all alone...

So audiences are a must for those of us who are purveyers of the arts.  That said, I will admit to liking them a lot more en masse than as individuals for the most part. 

Applause from a big crowd?  It's the best, baby - I'm addicted to it!  Remarks from people who greet you backstage after the event?  Well, the eloquent term "meh" (so beloved in current social media) comes to mind. There are too many times when backstage interactions resemble that scene in the movie Amadeus where the Emperor complains to Mozart that his latest opera contains "too many notes", while Wolfgang arranges his face into the most diplomatic expression he can.  Yeah, I've been there...

So today I thought I would draw upon a lifetime of concert-going and concert-giving to share with you some memories of events made notable by the audiences that attended them.

I.  The Case of the Cranky Pianist 
During my high school years, my mother and I attended a piano recital given by Alfred Brendel as part of the Allied Arts Piano Series at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.  It's so long ago now that I can't remember all the works on the program - I know the second half was taken up with the Italian book of the Années de pèlerinage of Liszt.  I'm pretty sure the program opened with Beethoven.

In any case, Brendel bounded onto the stage, made a perfunctory bow, and with no ceremony whatsoever, began to play as though he was double-parked outside.  If you've been to a lot of piano recitals, you'll understand this is not the norm at these things.  Quite often there is a lot of settling-in on the bench, monkeying around with the sleeves of the tuxedo for optimal comfort, and of course the moments of gathering one's concentration by striking a meditative, eyes-closed pose or casting one's eyes heaven-ward (or, more accurately, ceiling-ward) as if to solicit divine assistance from gods, saints and the ghost of J. S. Bach.  Not Brendel!  He launched into his opening sonata with the same haste one writes down a phone number one has heard and is afraid of forgetting. 

Here's the thing: it's not just performers who have their start-of-the-concert routines; audiences have theirs as well.  Conversations must be wrapped up; celophane candy wrappers must be crinkled, pages of program books must be flipped, and of course, both throats and sinuses must be cleared.  This takes as long as it takes.  Most pianists, conductors and other musicians get this and have learned over the course of their careers to cut the audience (which, after all, has coughed up the cash for the artist's fee in addition to sinus drainage) a little slack and allow them to finish up their business.  Musicians get good at calculating the precise psychological moment at which to commence with their opening phrase, and voila: Art Happens!

But Alfred Brendel ran roughshod through those opening moments like a John Deere tractor running over a patch of daisies on your lawn.  After a good couple of pages of Beethoven (or whatever), he lifted his hands from the keyboard and swiveled around on the piano bench to face us, his adoring fans.

Understand, it's been over forty years since this recital took place, so I can't quote him word for word.  But the following paraphrase will certainly re-create both the content and tone of what came out of his mouth:

"I would just like you to know that I have played the piano all over the world; in this country, througout Europe, Russia, China, Japan and the entire globe.  And I want you to know that never in my career have I ever played for an audience as rude as this one in Chicago today.  The level of noise drowning out my music is amazing to me.  Permit me to remind you that there may, just possibly, be some people in attendance today who actually have an interest in the music and would like to be able to hear it in silence.  Thank you very much."

This impromptu sermon was followed by a round of enthusiastic applause, as if to say "By gum, you're absolutely correct!  We suck!  We're awful!  We should be taken out and shot!  Who do we think we are, anyway?!"  And the concert resumed to roll along uneventfully and very, very, very, VERY respectfully.

Alfred Brendel, unsurprisingly, is credited with the following quote: "The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent'".  I never had occasion to hear him play in person again.

I wonder if he ever got the hang of that whole psychological-moment deal?

The Case of the Awkward Graduate Recital
A mere handful of years after the Brendel incident, I found myself majoring in piano at Indiana University's School of Music in Bloomington.  Naturally, I did my share of accompanying voice students in lessons and recitals, including a certain tenor who studied with the great American dramatic soprano Eileen Farrell.

The time came for this student (let's call him Don, though that's not his name) to deliver his Master's recital.  Now, it's important to realize that Indiana's School of Music was the largest in the world at that time, and towards the end of the spring semester the old Recital Hall got completely booked with a continuous parade of junior, senior and graduate recitals.  My own Master's recital, for example, took place at 10:00 PM on a weeknight, because the more desirable time-slots had long since disappeared.

So the best Don could manage was to book the auditorium at the Monroe County Library off campus in downtown Bloomington, a last-resort option for students left out in the cold in terms of the Recital Hall calendar.  It certainly wasn't as nice a venue, but whatcha gonna do?  This too shall pass, and fifty years from now no one will care, right?  Right.

So the day of the program arrived.  Don and I reported for our warm-up period before the auditorium was opened to the public.  As it developed, a last-minute schedule snafu resulted in Miss Farrell being out of town and unable to attend, a rarity since a performing student's instructor has to render a grade in order for credit to be bestowed.  Even now, I wonder how that worked; maybe a tape was made and she listened to that before submitting the grade.  Or, just possibly, no one gave a crap and Don got himself an automatic "A" -- who knows?

In any event, let me describe the audience which greeted us as we strode out to begin with Bellini's six Ariette da Camera.

On the far stage-left side of the auditorium, in an aisle seat closest to the exit on that side, sat Don's girl friend.

On the opposite stage-right side, in an aisle seat closest to the other exit, sat Don's ex-wife.

That was it. 

Richard Flanagan wrote a novel in 1997 entitled Sound Of One Hand Clapping, after an age-old riddle.  I'm here to tell you that the sound of four hands clapping - and unenthusiastically, at that - ain't much louder.

"ker-CLAP....  CLAP clap.....   (clap)... ker-CLAP"

It was all I could do, while Don bowed with something of a smirk on his face, not to say:  "Hey y'all, this is dumb.  What do you say we all get out of here and go get a beer together?" 

III.  Oreo Music-birds of Doom
Consider the magpie.  Magpies, it turns out, have an abiding interest in the musical arts.  Come to think of it, lots of birds do, in my experience.  During the two seasons I spent as a guest artist at the Operafestival di Roma in Italy, our dress rehearsals and performances took place in the open air courtyard of the old Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza.  Birds of the gull-ish variety seemed to take an active interest in our own warblings and often piped along either in angry rebuke or joyful volunteerism, I could never discern which...

But I speak now of the magpie, that black-and-white specimen (hence the "oreo" reference above) whose thieving instincts were immortalized by Rossini in his opera La Gazza Ladra.  (For the slow-of-wit among you, that means The Thieving Mapie.)

Magpies have pretty much taken over the town of Aspen, Colorado.  Do they enjoy skiing?  Is it the high altitude that draws them?  Are they wealthy, and able to afford the exorbitantly expensive restaurants in that community?  They aren't talking, but whatever the reason, they are EVERYWHERE.  On my next visit I expect to see them driving cabs and working as bellhops in the Aspen hotels.

My daughter Kathleen, a gifted young flutist, spent three summers at the Aspen International Music Festival.  Her first summer, in 2009, my wife and I made a couple of trips out to see her and take in the scenery, music and everything else Aspen has to offer visitors.  Among the many recitals we attended was an orchestral concert featuring the pianist Vladimir Feltsman playing the Mozart Piano Concerto in C Minor.  Big concerts like this take place in what the Festival calls a "permanent tent" nestled in a corner of the town.  Spacious and comfortable, the hall qualifies as a "tent" mostly because it is not sealed off from the outdoors; good-sized gaps separate the walls from the roof all around the circumferance of the structure.

Which means that music-loving magpies in the area have a season-long subscription pass to all the concerts.  And boy, do they appreciate it!  As the music progressed, occasional cries of "CAW!" began to gather momentum and increase in volume.  These birds were heavily into Mozart.  I'll never forget the sight of Feltsman playing a particularly delicate passage for the right hand alone in the concerto's slow movement.  Bent over the keyboard in concentration, he suddenly became aware - CAW! - of a number of - CAW! CAW! - feathered groupies congregating - CAW! CAW! CAW! outside the concert hall - CAW! CAW! CAW! CAW! - and registering their strong affinity for Viennese Classicism.  Still spinning his solo unaccompanied melodic line, Feltsman's left arm came to rest on the top of the keyboard lid in an ironic gesture of exasperation.  Slowly, by degrees, never disrupting his playing, his head swiveled around to cast a lingering stare at the disrupters.  Slowly, by degrees, with resignation, his head turned back to the keyboard.  The music proceeded to the finale.  The birds lost interest and moved on, presumably to sell drugs in the park or steal some hubcaps from the parking lot.


My new book 
The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online from amazon.com or at http://www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.

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