In the Wind. . . .

September 30, 2017

Performance

Rockport, Maine, is a quiet, picturesque village nestled between the bustling towns of Rockland and Camden. It’s on the west shore of Penobscot Bay, which forms the east end of the region known as mid-coast Maine, and like the surrounding towns, Rockport is a combination of a working fishing harbor and home to many private pleasure boats. There are a couple of active boatbuilding workshops there, and dozens, if not hundreds, of moorings bedeck the enclosed harbor. The area is home to many high-end vacation residences, so there’s a strong market for good musical performances, and Rockport, with two excellent restaurants and a vintage opera house within a few doors of each other, is known for the many outstanding concerts presented each summer.

But not last Tuesday. After a terrific dinner, Wendy and I took our seats in the opera house for a concert presented by a string quartet that’s resident in the area, and we were immediately stricken by the backstage sounds of the cellist, feverishly practicing a narky passage that started with a very high note, followed by a dramatic downward flourish. He played it over and over, right through the concert’s starting time, never getting the high note quite right, and sounding more frantic with each repetition. It was a dreadful display.

Finally, the quartet took the stage. Their concert attire was sloppy, and their progress from stage door to their chairs was haphazard. They opened the program with a few lofty remarks about the piece they were about to play, and offered a lackluster reading. Though the printed program indicated that they would play two pieces before intermission, they left the stage after the first piece, and the cellist went right back to his nervous and ineffectual practicing, still never quite reaching that high note. The audience was left to wonder if this was the intermission. There were no cues offered by house lights and no announcement about alteration of the program. The quartet would be joined by a singer for the final two pieces, so I suppose it made sense to present them together without break, but the sequence was strange and unsettling, especially as it was accompanied by dozens more missed chances at that pesky high note. Dozens.

Once again, it was a relief when the anguish stopped and they took the stage. The singer was a young woman who grew up in the area and made good. She has performed in several major opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and she knew how to dress appropriately. Her beautifully chosen dress and carefully coiffed hair was in stark contrast to the sloppy, uncoordinated garb heaped on the four chairs. The first piece they offered together was by Respighi, an erudite work with elusive structure, and none of them managed to pull out any sense of form. Finally, in Samuel Barber’s shimmering Dover Beach, the soprano got some traction and pulled the quartet toward meaningful playing. Inexplicably, the gullible audience gave them a standing ovation. Must have been the singer’s family. At least we had a wonderful dinner.

Rockport is 45 minutes from our place in Newcastle, and we had them in shreds by the time we got home. The quartet has been resident in the area for over 20 years, and they’re supported by a not-for-profit board that raises funds and organizes their concerts. Maybe things are a little too easy for them. Their performance lacked any sense of passion or commitment to the music.

The Salt Bay Chamberfest is an annual event in Damariscotta, Maine, which adjoins our town of Newcastle. The concerts are held in a barn owned by the Damariscotta River Association. It’s not a converted barn, it’s just a barn with wood walls and roof, cement floor, folding chairs, and a concession stand selling wine and cheese. Last summer, we heard a program that included three pieces by Kaija Saariaho: Nocturne, Cloud Trio, and Je sens un deuxième coeur. (Later in the year, her opera, L’amour de Loin, was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera, the first opera written by a woman to be presented there in more than a century.)

That concert ended with Arnold Schoenberg’s mystical Verklärte Nacht for string sextet, with Alan Gilbert, then music director of the New York Philharmonic, playing viola. Those musicians were used to performing in central formal venues, but they gave the same level of energy and commitment to their performance in the barn. It was rich and rewarding.

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I’ve long admired The Bobs, an a cappella vocal quartet formed in 1981 and now preparing their farewell tour. They write their own material in a rapid-fire hipster style, and they sing brilliantly in close harmony. I heard them live in a concert at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, a thousand-seat venue in Memorial Hall, just up the street from the museum formerly known as the Busch-Reisinger, home of E. Power Biggs’s iconic Flentrop organ. As we left the room after the concert, I was exhausted and assumed that most people present felt the same way. I reflected that those four performers spent enough energy to wear out the entire audience.

Just what is performance? Of course, performance is an artist presenting before an audience. Performers are actors, musicians, dancers, comedians, and various combinations of all those elements. But there’s more to it than sitting at an instrument, playing pieces of music. And, for the audience, the performance is more than simply sitting in a chair and listening.

There’s some kind of deal, some kind of relationship set up between performer and audience. Perhaps it’s tension—the audience is expectant and the performer intends to sate them. Perhaps it’s trust—the audience relies on the performer to present the music freely and accurately. Perhaps it’s risk—the performer interprets familiar passages in new ways, causing the audience to sit on the edge of their seats. And perhaps it’s the baring of soul—the performer exposes his inner person to the audience, willing to share his private thoughts from the stage.

Some years ago, Wendy and I saw Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul at the Trinity Repertory Theater. One scene involved a male character, a diplomat in a position of power, who offered to provide the woman the visa she sought in return for sex. There was a struggle of wills until the actress tore off her blouse and, naked from the waist up, consented to the humiliation. That act took my breath away as an expression of a performer, baring herself both literally and figuratively. Her nakedness was metaphorical, a shout of anger at the ugly behavior of the diplomat. Her ability and willingness to do that in anger, apparently spontaneously, was one of the most eloquent instants in any performance I have witnessed.

Oh yes, I hear you sniggering out there. Of course he would never forget that. But how many of us have had performance anxiety dreams in which we are sitting at the organ in front of a room full of people and realize in horror that we are naked? Given the number of times I’ve heard friends and colleagues relate similar dreams, I’ll answer my own question. Lots of us. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a psychiatrist to realize that those images are related to the requirement and expectation that when we perform, we are baring our souls and our artistic psyches before our audiences. Are we ready for that?

One concept of performance, often repeated, is that the performer is a vessel through which the music passes. An iconic painting hangs on a wall, open to the enjoyment and interpretation of the viewer. There is no need for a middleman between the artist and the consumer. The greatness of a composer is nothing but squiggles on a page until an artist brings them to life. And in my experience, the best performers and the most exciting performances happen when the artist-as-vessel is a conveyor of energy. Not only do the squiggles become organized sound, but they become energized, dancing, flitting, or tearing across the room. The artist transforms the squiggles into force, and topknots are uprooted.

That’s the sign of a great actress, who seems to be a completely different person in every role she plays. Think of the great Maggie Smith as the imperious, scathing Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, and compare that to the homeless Mary Shepherd in The Lady in the Van. You Downton Abbey fans, if you haven’t met Mary Shepherd, you must.

 

Bigger than yourself

Sometimes, the artist-as-vessel gets carried away and grows bigger than the music. Physical histrionics are purposefully created, supposedly adding to the artistic experience. The unvarying result is the opposite. The music takes a back seat to the performer, and the audience is the poorer. It’s as if you’re watching a gymnastics meet rather than an artistic performance. I don’t mind an occasional flourish, or a toss of the head at the end of an exciting passage, but I dislike unnecessary movement that seems theatrically planned.

Le Poisson Rouge is a trendy performance venue on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. It’s downstairs (one can only imagine what would happen if there was a fire), and you sit at tables where you can order (pretty good) food and (very good) drinks. It’s within walking distance of our apartment, and we’ve heard quite a few wonderful performances there. But there was this duo-piano concert, two sisters who were personifications of the too-flashy, too-theatrical musician. The first chord made me cringe: the pianos were not in tune with each other. Wendy put her hand on my elbow, and hissed, “Behave.” She was right. I consoled myself by scrawling commentary on the program throughout their performance. The two pianists spent the evening tossing their hair, throwing their hands in the air, and making what their coaches must have thought were alluring facial expressions. We often talk about that performance in social settings, and we invariably call them “The Kissy Sisters.”

In professional football, a team is penalized when a player displays histrionics. It’s officially called “excessive celebration.” What if you had a button on the armrest of your concert hall seat that allowed you to vote? Artists whose first and last names are the same would be banned from the field.

 

Distraction

Did I mention that the pianos were not in tune with each other? Those who present concerts must accept the responsibility to create a suitable setting for performers and listeners. There were several hundred of us in that room, in fifty-dollar seats with twenty-dollar drinks. Don’t tell me that there wasn’t money to hire a piano tuner. There were two lovely Steinway “B’s” on the stage—at least they brought in good instruments. But had the pianos been in good tune, it might have taken me two or even three measures to dislike the performance.

During performances at Carnegie Hall in New York, there are huge glass snifters full of Ricola™ lozenges placed throughout the lobbies and corridors, a nice touch of consideration for all concert-goers. I remember hearing a radio story years ago about the London Symphony introducing “Silent Sweets,” little hard candies wrapped in paper specially designed to be quiet when opening.

Coughing and rustling candy wrappers are small fry when compared to cell phones. We’re all used to the public announcements before performances, reminding audiences to silence their cell phones. Look across the audience of a big formal concert and guess how many cell phones are in the room. Out of 2,500 people, I bet there are fewer than a hundred who don’t have phones with them.

On Thursday, January 12, 2012, The New York Times reported: 

 

They were baying for blood in the usually polite precincts of Avery Fisher Hall. The unmistakenly jarring sound of an iPhone marimba ring interrupted the soft and spiritual final measures of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday night. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, did something almost unheard-of in a concert hall: He stopped the performance. But the ringing kept going on, prompting increasingly angry shouts in the audience directed at the malefactor. 

You can read the story at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/nyregion/ringing-finally-stopped-but-….

Coughing, crying babies, cell phones, and late arrivals are all intrusions into the relationship between performer and audience. Some are unavoidable. There are times when you just can’t help coughing. But thoughtful audience members must do their best to preserve the full experience for those around them. There’s a lot to be said for bringing children to concerts, but there’s a continuum between the child’s gain and the collective loss of hundreds of listeners whose experience was marred. Cell phones? No excuse. But the poor guy whose phone spoiled the New York Philharmonic’s concert had a plausible explanation. The New York Times reported that his company had replaced his Blackberry with an iPhone that day. He thought he had silenced it at the start of the concert, but didn’t realize that the alarm was set.

 

The consummate performer

We all have memories of spectacular live performances. Organist Stephen Tharp played the closing concert of the 2014 convention of the American Guild of Organists. Boston’s 3,000-seat First Church of Christ, Scientist (The Mother Church) was filled to capacity with what must be the most critical audience an organist can face, and Tharp let loose with a performance that was dazzling both technically and artistically. His reading of his own transcription of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring took the audience places they’d never been. In the three years since, I’ve discussed that concert with dozens of others who were there, most recently last night. And while you’d think that the wide world could dredge up one fussbudget who would criticize, I’ve never heard it. The concept of organ concerts changed that night, and everyone present knew it.

Another instance displaying the consummate performer was the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires’s experience with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1999. She was engaged to play a Mozart concerto, checked which one by referring to the orchestra’s published schedule, and prepared the piece. Not a good source, apparently. Amazingly, the first reading with the orchestra was during an open rehearsal in front of an audience. Conductor Riccardo Chailly began Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. Pires gave a shocked look, buried her face in her palm, then told Chailly that there was a problem. As the orchestra played, he turned to her and said something like, “You played it last year. You’ll be fine.” And she was. By the time the orchestra’s introduction was over, she had pulled herself together, dredged her memory for the correct piece, and played it flawlessly. You can see a video of that incredible moment at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fS64pb0XnbI.

I doubt that I fully understand the physiology that makes some people able to perform. How can a major league pitcher throw a strike in a tense situation when millions of people are watching? How can an actress toss aside all modesty to be someone else in front of an audience? How can a musician maintain control of her body to perform such intricate motions in front of thousands? What drives people to do that? What expansiveness of spirit is necessary? What generosity? What intense concentration?

I may not understand it, but I sure am grateful for every opportunity I’ve had to hear someone play beautifully. All of us who perform at any level need to witness others doing it as often as possible.