concert etiquette

Uppers and downers at the Wigmore Hall

We dropped into the Wigmore Hall last night for an interesting programme from the Nash Ensemble and Susan Gritton.  Adolescent Tchaikovsky met Beethoven, whilst Shostakovich provided both a surging finale and some of the most gloomy songs ever encountered. (more…)

Two very different visits to the Royal Festival Hall

Tuesday and Wednesday evenings of this week were both spent at the Royal Festival Hall.  The two evenings couldn’t have been more different.

First off was Renee Fleming and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Charles Dutoit whipping up the storms.  To say it was Renee Fleming and the RPO is a bit of an exaggeration; as has been remarked elsewhere (see comment thread in particular), it was the RPO with a brief appearance by Fleming to lighten the mood.  It was an oddly unbalanced concert to say the least.

For starters, it was a ‘sing the CD’ affair.  Something to plug?  Book the Festival Hall.  With Fleming, Terfel, Gheorghiu, Netrebko and Hvorostovsky all passing through in the space of a few weeks, it rather feels that the resident orchestras are only required to really put their minds to what to do to fill in the gaps left by the record company managements.  I may well be being unfair, and this may indeed be an exaggeration, but this concert left an unpleasant taste and I therefore feel that a bit of grumpiness is not out of place.

Two Romeo & Juliets – Prokofiev in the first half, Tchaikovsky in the second – were complemented by a few arias from Fleming’s Verismo disc (two by Leoncavallo, one each for Giordani and Puccini) and Eugene Onegin’s letter scene.  It didn’t add up to a whole lot.  Oh, and we had “one encore” (specifically announced in what felt like a ‘this is all you’re getting so make the most of it’ way): O mio babbino caro.  We sat in the choir so admired the back of her gown and the back of her head.  Sound wasn’t great, obviously, but what came across most vividly was the Manon Lescaut item (sola, perduta, abandonnata).  The others seemed to trot by rather blandly.  Sat within spitting distance of the brass and timpani (we restrained ourselves, obviously), the Prokofiev was an intermittently rumbustious affair.

Then Wednesday: the LPO tackled Wagner and Bruckner, with Petra Lang present to deliver a rich, fine Wesendonck Lieder, all led by Christoph Eschenbach.  This was a much more satisfactory affair all round.  Eschenbach was marvellous to watch, as he communicated the more expansive and climactic moments vividly.  If bits of Wagner have to be wrenched free of their settings, then I’ll take the Tannhauser overture quite happily, especially when played (as here) in a way that really ratchets the tension in the build-up to that glorious full-on rendition of the Pilgrims’ Chorus over squiggly violin motifs (that’s a technical term, by the way).  The Wesendonck Lieder were, as I say, rather wonderful.  Having last seen/heard Petra Lang munching her way through already well-chewed scenery in the ROH’s Lohengrin, with full-on vocal dramatics, I wasn’t expecting so refined and controlled a performance.  It was magnetic, with gorgeous tone throughout, and a rapt concentration that was held to the very end when Eschenbach took a good 10-15 seconds to drop his baton slowly in a silent Hall.  Magic.  And how very different from the atmosphere in the same hall the previous night.

I don’t understand Bruckner, and I think it will be a while before I do.  I like it, don’t get me wrong, but bar a rather ropey performance of the 4th by the Oxford University Orchestra in my student days, I haven’t attended a live performance of a Bruckner symphony.  One really needs to do the homework before going.  I see a lot written about the ‘architecture’ of these symphonies, of the overall structure which must be related to the individual building blocks, such as is only possible by the great Brucknerian conductors.  Well, if Bruckner’s 6th is architecture, I fear that I spent a lot of time admiring a couple of pediments, some window surrounds and a rather grand doorcase, but failed to get a full view of the edifice.  Don’t get me wrong, though, I like the sound-world:  I marvel at the glory of those climaxes that blaze forth as only Bruckner seems able to command;  the elegance of the rhythms in the gentler passages is a joy; but overall, the stop-start-soft-loud-soft approach leaves me pleasantly, at times giddily, bewildered, in this case, most particularly in the last movement.  Maybe as I get older I’ll understand…

I will also just remark on an individual in the choir – front row centre – who had the effrontery, pretty much from first bar of Wagner to last glorious climax of Bruckner, to repeatedly nod off and awaken, over and over again, in regular and distracting fashion, falling so far forward as to practically have his head on the rail in front of him, before bobbing back up again and then resuming his droop forward.  After the third movement of Bruckner the people behind him had a word, the effect of which lasted all of about 10mins.  Frankly, I was hoping that someone near by would pull out a sheet of cast iron, slip it between the pages of their programme and, under cover of a Bruckner brass chorale, give him a good stout crack across the back of the head.  He certainly deserved it.  A friend, who spent the first half in the choir behind the miscreant before moving elsewhere for the sake of his sanity, speculated that Eschenbach noticed the miscreant’s narcoleptic bobbing-about.  Unforgiveable, and all credit to Eschenbach for not stopping and demanding his removal.  I could discourse at great length on the irritations of audiences – and at some point will – but this seemed to me wilfully rude. 

So, two evenings, each very different:  the later of the two the more enjoyable and, I have to say, appearing to possess considerably greater artistic integrity.

Opera Holland Park: no longer a virgin…

What great fun Opera Holland Park is.  I think it helped that we were seeing Hänsel und Gretel, so that the distant chirruping and squawking from the Park’s longer-established feathered residents was eerily appropriate.  It may also have helped that our little bunch knew the Director so got a sneaky glimpse backstage afterwards.

The performance was wonderful and I couldn’t but marvel at how Stephen Barlow managed to get something so coherent and engaging onto a rather ungrateful stage.  With the first two acts, and most of the third played in gently declining, but nonetheless insistent, daylight achieving atmospheric effects was rather difficult.  It was also a fixed set for the whole piece, presumably to facilitate the changing of operas each night on a relatively constricted stage, and of course there were no facilities to fly scenery or backdrops in and out, and no opportunity to blackout the stage for manual changes of bits of set.  And still it enthralled as much as this piece always should.

The basic production ‘tenor’ was of fun:  no children on meathooks, no intrusive inventions, just good dark fun.  There was a general 1940s wartime theme, with the Dew Fairy a military nurse (of the matron variety) and the Sandman a Shelter Warden come to see them to bed.  The whole set was a beech-forest wallpapered room corner, with giant door which opened and closed to let characters on and off, and to add threat to potential entrances.  The witch’s gingerbread house was a giant lurid pink and yellow box of Bahlsen cakes and pastries.  Simple, but effective.

Performances were universally strong.  Anne Mason as both Mother and Witch was stronger as the latter, really going for it, inhabiting the most wonderfully camp characterisation:  green sequinned waisted jacket/skirt combo with green wig and sparkly top hat perched at an angle, finished off with a mint green fur coat.  Like a particularly over-the-top drag queen on St Patrick’s Day.

Both lead characters were wonderfully strong and I became aware of the constant surprise I have at how singers can capture the spirit of these two children.  Utterly believable in their wonder, curiosity, naughtiness and fear.  It was a privilege to see Donald Maxwell as the Father – his voice carried over the odd acoustic of the tent theatre marvellously and all words were clear and direct.  I seem to remember him on many G&S recordings of my youth… must look them up to check I’m remembering correctly!

The conducting was better in Act 3 than the first two.  I was starting to worry by the end of the second act that we were losing some momentum, but everything was firmly on bright forward-thrusted form for the witch’s scene.  The music is absolutely amazing; I can’t get enough of it.  Wagner with a smile.  Wagner with innocence and charm.  Moreover, short Wagner.  Just sublime.  I had to close my eyes during the prayer and the dream sequence, which was played in a lively and interesting way, but nonetheless, there’s something in that music that just makes me want to hear it and be transported…

Pace the earlier post on concert behaviour, we had someone who practically stomped out (quite noticeable on a temporary scaffold seating rig), people talking behind (we all banded together to turn, glare and raise an eyebrow which more or less did it), and an imbecile that thought he could tap his feet (more glaring).

And was that Karita Mattila I saw a few rows forward?  95% sure, we were, and the other half made a beeline to accost her, but the crowd closed in and she was swept away.  But that would have been the mere cherry on the top of a fantastic evening.  Next Holland Park stop: Orpheus in the Underworld in July.  Can’t wait:  an absolute obsession of my teenage years, and I’ve never seen it on stage…

An Everyday Tale of Concert-Going

First off, before I get into what may well degenerate into a rant, I have to say that this was a spectacular concert.  The London Symphony Orchestra, Asher Fisch and Deborah Voigt peformed Wagner and Strauss (with a Beethoven interlude in the middle).  We had a nice comfortable seat in the front-ish left of the Circle, albeit that we were still surrounded by the Barbican, and all seemed set for a wonderful night of music making.  And then they let the kids in.

First to the concert:  there were a couple of orchestral pieces thrown into the mix alongside Voigt’s substantial vocal contribution.  There’s no disrespect intended to Voigt in saying that, in some ways, these were the best moments.  The Fidelio overture was spirited, incisive and energetic in the right measure, the Entry of the Guests from Tannhäuser launched the evening with due bombast.  However, the revelation was a wonderful detailed reading of Salome‘s Dance of the Seven Veils.  Some of the calmer moments were amazing in their detail and incident, whilst the over-ripe, decadent grand moments where given full rein.  There is a moment where (and forgive the attempt to explain) the section that ends with the ascending harp motives leads to a brief pause before the introduction of the main theme on rich low strings and woodwind:  spine-tingling.

Voigt’s contribution was remarkable.  She seems to these amateur ears to have a voice which is secure and exciting at moments, but somehow just stops short of that last notch of bright, incisive thrill that you can sometimes get.  But there she was, surrounded by a bloody noisy band (in the Strauss especially), and still came out as audible above it.  This particularly applied to the excerpt from Die Aegyptische Helena, which I could probably go to my grave without hearing again and it wouldn’t feature highly on my list of regrets.  It was like Strauss was trying to get his own back on Korngold.

Abscheulicher was delivered securely but not so flexibly – this felt like a bit of an odd choice, albeit a welcome one.  Du bist der Lenz from Die Walküre always seems a bit odd out of context; it sort of stops abruptly when you want it to run on into the drama that follows.  Chrysothemis’s big number from Elektra was well-delivered but with some slightly odd chopped phrasing in tha last wonderful, soaring “Ich bin ein’ Weib, und will ein’ Weibes Schicksal.” 

The star turn, though, was a tremendous, intense account of the Closing Scene of Salome that matched the wonders of the Dance that had gone before in every respect.  Fabulous nuance, some chilling quiet semi-spoken moments, and reserves of power left for the big moments.  Absolutely tremendous – one to remember for a very long time.

So let’s talk about the audience.  You could tell immediately, I’m sorry to say, those that were in ‘on a scheme’.  Apparently the Barbican is offering free tickets to under-25s.  Guess what?  You give someone something for nothing and they treat it like nothing.  I heard a couple of disputes being resolved by means of hisses and shushes and subsequent muttering around the auditorium.  A phone went off.  Sweet papers were rustled.  Seats were intrusively swapped.  And a number of conversations were held.  I had to ask the gayboys next to me to stop their conversation through most of the Entry of the Guests, and one of them in particular spent the performance flicking back and forth through his programme with the kind of insolent disregard for the disturbance that this might cause that is to be expected of any peasant forced to sit through something they resent.  As you can tell, this makes me rather hacked-off.

What is the problem with issuing an instructional note with these ‘scheme’ tickets to explain the etiquette:  talking, phones, jangling bangles
(a real bête noire).  Hell, it’s not even etiquette, it’s basic civility:  there are a hundred people slogging away to produce an artistic product that those around you are appreciating, enjoying, being moved by, reflecting upon.  If you are bored, then f**k off at the interval, or between pieces if you can get out without disturbing people. And it isn’t only people on these schemes, I know, but in this case I strongly suspect that cause…

And why should people have free tickets anyway?  You want to see a concert of top-notch international-standard music making?  Pay a tenner, or a fiver, or three quid at least.  Yes, these institutions are subsidised and should be focusing on developing new audiences; but giving seats away for free (as opposed to the nominal fees proposed) feels like taking that subsidy and pissing it away down the drain whilst, to add insult to injury, destroying the enjoyment and enrichment that those of us who are the CURRENT audience pay our ticket prices for.

Oooo, it makes me mad.  But I managed to enjoy the wonderful performance despite this audience’s best efforts.  Some people may not have realised it, but they were present for a performance that really was world-class.  I suppose you don’t expect to get world-class for free, do you?  So how would they know?