Monday, April 25, 2011

The Symphony Rules

I think I was 15 when I heard a live symphony orchestra for the first time.  It was in a church and my high school boyfriend's mother played violin in this group.  I never forgot that sensation, that tickle in my ear upon hearing live stringed instruments.  There is no other way for me to describe it but live music especially violins, violas, cellos, basses...taps into something deep and is unlike any other experience.   But as naive as I am about classical music, I have learned that there are rules, etiquette really, for when you attend the symphony.  But I am a multi-tasker at heart and much to my musician husband's chagrin, I still like to thumb through my program and shift around in my seat.  If a piece bores me, I busy myself thinking of what I will say about it when it's over and look around at other patrons.  I know, it's borderline behavior but sometimes it's hard to stay focused.

Also as a non-musician, I acknowledge the extent to what I absorb of the classic masterworks is small.  The complexity and emotion is apparent but there is so much more.  This realization was reinforced when I tried to play a violin recently.  Our friend Mika is among other things a talented violinist and let me try it.  Just holding the bow was an eye-opener.  It looks so simple but there is this "peculiar" way to position one's fingers.  I felt like I would drop it at any moment.  Then figuring out how hard to press the bow on the strings--those musicians make it look so effortless.  But it is the exact opposite.   The life-long dedication, talent and achievement distinguish them from the rest of us.  I suppose they are like athletes that way.

So as I've grown older, I have made efforts to have some small ongoing exposure to the symphony.  Last Friday was one of those nights.  It was a program with Prokofiev, one of Ken's favorite composers.  I too like the Russian composers, they have more dramatic and angsty music which definitely appeals.   But it was in the recital hall with a chamber group instead of with the entire symphony in the main auditorium.  Immediately I noticed the patrons were dressed down more than usual.  (Was it "casual Friday" at the symphony?)  Clearly modern times and the "Seattle laid back attitude" mix to deem Birkenstocks as acceptable footwear and a clean fleece pullover as a fitting dress shirt.  But I digress.  A paying guest, regardless of their fashion, is a welcome sight these days.  But I still can't help but feel bad for the performers.  Looking a little nicer than what you'd wear for a trip to the store is a fair reverence to them and their dedication. 

However, cringe-worthy things started happening between the 3rd and 4th movement of the first piece.  That was when people broke into applause because they thought the first piece was over.  In fairness, the musicians did finish with their bows up in the air and after a little bit of flourish but there were four movements listed.  So a lot of people got faked out and we all starting clapping.  That seemed to set the tone for the rest of the night where people just burst into applause between movements, like someone had opened Pandora's box and anything goes.  No doubt, we are not the first Seattle audience to clap prematurely (this week) but it shows me how pretentious I can get about it.   Then to top it all off, they gave a standing ovation.  There were good aspects, particularly the 2nd and 3rd pieces but Seattle, from my observation, loves to give standing ovations.  All the time.  Even if it's mediocre.  So how can you discern good from great here?  That is my question.  Ken thinks I sound so snobby when I say that but it's like giving everyone an "A" or a trophy.  Every performance doesn't merit the highest honor.  Okay, I'm done now.

And yet, this clearly illustrates how alienating it might be for someone to go to the symphony for the first time so therefore they don't.  With the news of Philadelphia's Orchestra filing for bankruptcy, it's scary.  I looked around at the audience (as I am wont to do) and noticed Ken and I were some of the youngest people there and there were not many in our age group.  That does not bode well for this musical tradition being kept alive.  Sure there are a number of kids who learn musical instruments and play in youth symphonies/orchestras which work closely with the professional symphony but why am I not seeing or hearing about more of my peers attending or enjoying the symphony?

When the Seattle Symphony rep called us a month ago to remind us to renew our season tickets, I had a frank talk with her.  Why aren't you guys doing more with movie composers? I asked.  When Lord of the Rings was going, they hosted Howard Shore, the man responsible for scoring that epic trilogy.  They had multimedia screens with projections above the full symphony with hand drawn sketches and photos of the locations where the movie was shot.  People I had never seen showed up for this (young people) and in costume.  It was an amazing event with lots of energy.  Granted this is not traditional symphony but I liken it to a gateway drug.  Get people in the building (which is amazing on it's own) and have them see that going to the "symphony" isn't as stuffy and inaccessible as you may believe.  I suggested they try to get Danny Elfman up here.  That would be amazing.  I think there has to be a way to instill interest and that might be in the form of using popular culture.

It is a good thing that they have made their packages very flexible and of varying sizes.  Clearly we don't have a lot of time or money to see tons of performances.  So we go with their smallest package of 3-4 performances for the entire 9 month season.  That's doable and keeps us connected.  This next season, I chose a non-traditional series that features world music so we can have a little break from the masters and hear some new/different stuff.  In the past, we've tried small packages featuring music of Mozart, Beethoven, Chamber Music, the Russians (Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich) and famous classical guitarists.  So there is variety and new stuff to hear/see from the symphony.  Perhaps they are not doing enough outreach to "unlikely" patrons or perhaps they're resistant to taking too many liberties with classic work.  I know there is a new musical director as of this year.  He's 36.  The outgoing guy is 64.  Perhaps we will see some changes after all...

1 comment:

Scott said...

Standing and clapping for your post.