Sunday, February 01, 2009

High Spirits

There were posts today about "violence" at Thursday night's concert in Zankel Hall, the recently added recital space in Carnegie Hall, one of the great cultural centers of the world. It happened during a performance of music by the contemporary Hungarian composer, Peter Eötvös. You can read accounts of it here and here. (Thanks to Alex Ross for the alert.)

You would think it was initiated by someone protesting the avant-garde music - shades of the premiere of The Rite of Spring - but no, this was merely (a) an errant cell-phone, (b) a late-arriving drunk, (c) annoyed audience members shooshing the offender(s) and applauding the usher, (d) all of the above.

The correct answer seems to be (d).

As for cell-phones, with far too many examples to relate here ("yes? what - I'm at a concert - right") , one incident remains firmly planted in the foreground of memory: Bruce Adlophe had come to town for a Market Square Concert performance that included his "analysis" of the opening movement of Mozart's G Minor Piano Quartet which he had deftly turned into a murder trial with his clever narration, frequently imposing suitable text to Mozart's often dramatic music.

As the prosecution pressed toward the trial's inevitable outcome, someone's cell-phone went off. It just happened the ringtone was the "Ode to Joy" Theme from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, continuously unfurling while the poor soul tried shutting off the phone. I don't recall how Adolphe ad-libbed from the stage, but it was about a momemt later (and too late) when it occurred to me I should have shouted down from my seat in the mezzanine - to the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony - "Ludwig objects! Ludwig objects!"

While I have tons of stories from my concert-going days in New York City, back in the '70s - in addition to the one about bean soup and Bruckner at the New York Philharmonic - there is one from a recent Market Square Concerts performance at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center, one that came to mind reading about this Zankel Hall concert. It was a potentially wonderful performance of one of the most mesmerizing of masterpieces, the String Quintet by Franz Schubert with the Miró Quartet joined by the Cleveland Quartet's cellist, Paul Katz, very nearly derailed by... well, let's just call him a late-comer.

To describe him as an elderly drunk may be harsh (or a whacko, uncaring), but perhaps “an eccentric gentleman of a certain age” might be more politically correct. The drunkenness can be attested to by people who sat nearer to him than I – one said she could smell it on him as he tottered past her toward a seat near the front. It was as if Peter O'Toole, portraying the hapless deadbeat Peter Plunkett in the 1988 film, High Spirits, had somehow become part of the concert.

Unfortunately, he made his entrance only about a minute or so after the Schubert began, well after intermission was over, standing there divesting himself of his raincoat and umbrella before sitting down, waving at a few people and talking to someone nearby. Once he had presumably settled himself, it became apparent he was intimately familiar with Schubert’s quintet, judging from the balletic conducting he proceeded to engage in, sometimes extending his arms to their full length, sometimes up over his head. This went on for the rest of the first movement (which by itself is about 20 minutes long)!

Then, as the musicians were preparing to bring us into this most personal inner-world of the second movement, this man began to clap slowly, just four or five times – too late for the first movement and too rhythmic to be applause: I think he was “helping them” set the tempo for the slow movement!! He seemed to calm down once the music began, but was soon moving his hands about as if choreographing the music’s phrasing and changes of mood. I believe this was when he started turning to members of the audience behind and beside him when one young man near him got up and left, coming back after a a brief moment. It was impossible to avoid noticing this even from the front of the mezzanine and I was thinking how it could possibly get worse.

Not long afterward, an usher came down the aisle, walked into his row, beckoning him to come along with him. There were hand motions and arm waving but nothing verbal that I could hear, the usher pointing to the back of the hall. This whole pantomime lasted perhaps 30-40 seconds and had little to do with the music from the stage. Couldn't this have waited a few more minutes until the end of the movement? (Shouldn't it have been avoided by the ushers not letting him into the hall after the music had already begun?)

The man slowly got up, gathered his raincoat and umbrella, put his arm around the usher and patted him on the shoulder. I cringed thinking he would either make a fuss over being evicted or wave his arm about the hall to apologize to everyone for the inconvenience he may have caused. But he went quietly and, with only a little of the slow movement left, the hall returned to normal – or better, to the world Schubert had intended to create for you, which the musicians were doing such an incredible job recreating for us.

- Dr. Dick

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