Friday, December 21, 2012

From last week: quick thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Spoilers ahead, so beware if you haven't seen it yet...

I loved revisiting this universe. From the opening showing the dwarves at the height of their power, to hints of Smaug, to Hobbiton, Gandalf, Frodo(!), and the elves, it was great to be back. I especially enjoyed all the musical cues. All the themes Howard Shore used in the Lord of the Rings saga came back here, along with new music for the dwarves at Erebor and The Company. I grinned with sheer joy whenever I heard a musical cue for the elves, the eagles or the Hobbits theme.

I knew it was going to be a long movie with far more material than we needed, like Radagast, the backstory with Azog the Pale Orc, hints about the Necromancer, and so on. I don't care. I didn't mind that extra footage at all, and in fact actually enjoyed it. The 3D was better than I expected, but it didn't add that much to the movie. I started to get a headache near the end, but I may have been sitting too close (2nd row from the center aisle). I'll sit further back the next time I see it. Also, I saw it in regular 24FPS 3D, not the 48FPS version that some have said looks too real. What I saw looked good enough to me. I'd be fine with a 2D version, in fact.

Peter Jackson made these movies for LOTR fans, and as a huge LOTR fan I have a well-established bias. If you loved the first trilogy then I think you're going to enjoy this movie. If you didn't see the original trilogy or were bored, The Hobbit isn't going to change your opinion. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rush might have sounded great, but I couldn't tell

The Barclays Center in Brooklyn had a long and twisting path from dream to reality. It took years just to sort through the lawsuits designed to stall or prevent its construction, then once construction began, those of us who live in Park Slope and Fort Greene endured traffic jams, noise, and dust. Finally, late last month, this new arena opened just blocks from my apartment. Monday night's Rush concert was my first opportunity to see the arena and hear a band I've enjoyed for years (and seen live once before, in 1994).

I liked the massive entranceway, with its high ceiling and what should be a gorgeous view of the basketball court as you walk in. The wide concourses looked inviting and the Brooklyn food vendors beckoned with local options like burgers and Fatty Cue barbeque. As we took the escalator to the upper level, I gawked at the club level's carpeted lounge. As we found our seats, while I didn't like the narrow aisles and gaps between rows, I loved the sight lines. The steeply raked upper deck meant that we had an excellent view of the stage below and to the left of us, with no heads in front of us blocking our view. I can only imagine how good the view would be for basketball or, dare I say it, hockey. And I really enjoyed the convenience of walking to and from the venue, a first for me.

Unfortunately, the sound in the upper level was absolutely awful. The bass thrummed throughout the arena, but the notes themselves were so muffled and lost within the space that I sometimes couldn't tell what Geddy Lee was playing. Alex Lifeson's guitar didn't fare much better. Neal Peart's drums sounded great during his solos, except when the bass thrumming shook the entire building and covered him up. The worst part were Geddy Lee's vocals. I'm not kidding when I say that I could barely understand a word he sang or spoke. Most of the set list consisted of newer material that I didn't know, and since I couldn't really hear any of it, I found myself checking Twitter and catching up on the presidential debate. The free wi-fi worked much better than the sound, by the way. Even when the band played songs I know by heart, like "The Spirit of Radio" or "Subdivisions," I couldn't pretend to sing along because I couldn't follow the vocals.

I've never been more disappointed in an arena show. Rush is an amazingly talented band that's been playing for 40 years, and their songs got completely lost in the Barclays Center. I don't know if it was a failure of the band's sound technicians or the arena's acoustics, but something was terribly off. I'm going to wait a while before I go to another concert at this arena.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Bach, Schoenberg, and Mozart: 3 German-speaking guys walk into a concert hall...

I hadn't heard any of the works on Saturday night's New York Philharmonic program live in concert before. Of the three, I was most familiar with Bach's Piano Concerto in D minor, which soloist Emanuel Ax played to perfection. I enjoyed the balance between the piano and the strings, which brought out harmonies from the second violins and the violas. Ax had not played this concerto before, an amazing fact when you consider the scope of his career. 

Prior to performing Arnold Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, Ax and music director Alan Gilbert spoke to the audience about the work and twelve-tone compositions in general. Gilbert said that 12-tone music didn't need to be frightening. He said that while some composers had taken the concept and applied it to their works with mediocre results, it was possible to find beauty in this type of music. Ax and Gilbert then highlighted some of the key melodies in the concerto, as guideposts for the audience. I've seen Gilbert do this sort of talk before pieces in the past. I think it does help an audience that's likely to be unfamiliar with a work and perhaps apprehensive about it. I was able to follow the structure of the piece and identify the elements that Ax and Gilbert had noted. But I had a difficult time "getting into" the work. Without a tonal melodic frame of reference, I didn't have anything to latch onto and follow on a deeper musical level. Near the end of the piece, my mind wandered and after a few minutes I realized I hadn't been paying attention to the music at all. I don't want to dismiss atonal or 12-tone music completely, but it's just not for me.

After intermission, the Philharmonic closed the program with Mozart's Symphony No. 36, "Linz." I adore Mozart's music, so one of his greatest symphonies was just the palate cleanser I needed. The orchestra and Gilbert turned in a sparkling performance. I wouldn't say they found something new in their interpretation of the music, but I'm OK with that. Listening to the New York Philharmonic play Mozart in concert is like listening to Bob Dylan sing "Like A Rolling Stone," or Pavarotti sing "Nessun dorma." It's the greatest orchestra in the country playing music they know inside and out, with a skilled music director on the podium. I think you take that performance every chance you get.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

All-streaming music, all the time? Not for me, yet.

Lifehacker's Whitson Gordon wonders whether we as music consumers are ready to give up our personal music collections and move to streaming services full-time. He discusses the pros and cons of Spotify and Rdio vs. iTunes or a MP3 collection on a mobile device. His conclusion is that the streaming services aren't quite there yet.  Between missing artists and awkward handling of local tracks that they don't own, getting everything you might want from a streaming service isn't possible yet.

I don't have an opinion about any of the streaming services. I still have two CD racks in my apartment that I haven't decided what to do with yet. I haven't taken any of them off the shelf in at least a couple of years. Some of them haven't moved off the shelf since I moved into this apartment four years ago. And while I haven't taken an official inventory, it's possible that I have twice as much music on my computer as I have on those shelves. But I hang onto these CDs, especially the rock CDs, as if they're some sort of lifeline. I have this irrational fear that if I sell the CDs and keep the music on my computer, that someday the RIAA will track me down and make me pay exorbitant rights fees for my own music. (I wouldn't get rid of the classical CDs, in some cases because of the excellent liner notes, and in others because they're rare or more meaningful to me.) If I'm not ready to part with my actual CDs, the physical representation of the sound, I'm definitely not ready to erase the 100+ GB of music files on my hard drive and rely on the Internet to provide my entertainment.

Let's try this again in five years. Maybe by then the various services will sort out this mess and ubiquitous Internet connections will make my computer's hard drive obsolete.

Friday, August 24, 2012

About this Lance Armstrong news...

Ryan Hudson at SBNation has some thoughtful commentary on Lance Armstrong's decision not to continue fighting the USADA's doping charges against him. Go read his piece, then come back. Or don't; I won't be upset.

I'd long held the opinion that Armstrong was clean, largely because no one was able to pin a beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt positive drug test result on him. I saw the continued efforts by French news organizations and anti-doping agencies as witch hunts, or people with axes to grind. But as more positive tests took down other riders (Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, Alberto Contador)  and the drumbeat against Armstrong continued, I stopped thinking about Armstrong's claims of innocence. If he was guilty, they'd eventually find something, even if the statute of limitations had expired or the positive tests came decades after his Tour victories. Well, here we are. By essentially pleading "no contest" Armstrong will lose his Tour wins (despite  tenuous USADA authority to remove them) and be banned from a sport from which he retired years ago. It doesn't matter. At this point I assume everyone in cycling is on something. I assume it about all sports, actually. Humans are not meant to ride 100 miles a day for three weeks. What difference does it make if they're riding while on EPO or extra-oxygenated blood or horse testosterone? How is that any different from having a faster bike or a better organized team?

I give up. Everyone is on something. Every athlete wants a competitive advantage, and if it's not available legally then they'll get it illegally. And what's stopping them? Everyone else is doing it.

I'll tell you who's riding clean: I am. I ride my bike three or four times a week on water and Clif bars. I used to idolize Lance Armstrong and imagine him riding up the hill in front of me, "dancing in his pedals" as one of the Tour commentators once said of him. But that was years ago. Now, I don't need his inspiration. He doesn't need to be my hero. And he shouldn't be yours either. None of our star athletes should be.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Udvar-Hazy Center

Last weekend we were back in the DC metro area for a family visit and a side trip out to Dulles, VA, to the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. This hangar-like building houses many of the large planes, helicopters, and spacecraft that the Smithsonian can't fit in the main museum on the National Mall. In particular I was excited to see the Space Shuttle Discovery, as I've been an astronomy and space exploration geek since I was a kid.

What struck me about the Shuttle is that it's big, but not that big. It looks enormous on TV and in photos. It's about the size of a medium-size passenger jet, like a commuter plane. It dominates the room in which it's housed, but it's small enough that I wondered at how NASA had crammed all of the electronics and mission equipment into the spacecraft. Even without seeing the interior, I could tell that astronauts really didn't have much room to maneuver inside it.

The other remarkable thing about the orbiter was its exterior. While the underside was covered with ceramic heat shield tiles, the upper parts of the shuttle looked like a patchwork of white quilts. For some reason I'd assumed that the ship was metallic. I hadn't realized that its upper surfaces are covered with heat-resistant fabric instead of metal. Of course, a spaceship doesn't have to be completely metallic. As long as it's airtight, you can cover the outside with fabric. Space is a vacuum.

As I walked through the museum and looked at the history of human flight, I marveled at the engineering feats it took to get us from the Wright brothers' plane to spaceflight in less than 60 years. There's a display of different aircraft engines from before WWI through the end of WWII. I hadn't considered what early mechanics and engineers had accomplished with what were little more than automobile engines adapted for airplanes.

In addition to the many photos I took of Discovery, I took far too many photos of some of my favorite planes, like the SR-71, the F-105 Thunderchief, the Concorde, and the "Enola Gay." They didn't have a Messerschmitt Me-262, one of my favorite early jet fighters, but they did have the Me-163 Komet, as well as the F-86 and MiG-15, two planes I remember well from days spent playing "Chuck Yeager's Air Combat Simulator." And I couldn't help thinking about the pointlessness of the inclusion of the X-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane that has yet to enter service. It's been in development for 20 years and if drone technology continues to evolve, it might never be finished. It's already a museum piece.

Monday, June 18, 2012

My last concert of the season: New York Philharmonic plays Beethoven, Korngold, and Nielsen

On Saturday we heard the Philharmonic perform Beethoven's Overture to Coriolan, Korngold's Violin Concerto with soloist Leonidas Kavakos, and Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 3, all conducted by Alan Gilbert. Barring a last-minute offer of tickets to this week's season finale series, Saturday's was the last concert of the season for us.

I enjoyed the Beethoven but I thought the piece could have used a little more drama. It's an energetic, powerful work but I didn't feel drawn into the performance. On the other hand, Kavakos provided all the drama and energy the audience needed for Korngold's gorgeous Violin Concerto. I thought the orchestra and soloist did an excellent job balancing each other, with Gilbert allowing Kavakos' lyricism to shine.

After intermission, the Philharmonic performed Nielsen's Symphony No. 3 for only the second time in the organization's history. Alan Gilbert has expressed a desire to expose Philharmonic audiences to Nielsen, and the orchestra provided a great showcase for this underrated symphony. I especially enjoyed the second movement with its wordless solos for soprano and baritone, and the finale with its lush Romantic melody for strings and horns. I didn't know much of Nielsen's music until a few years ago but he's quickly become a composer whose music I love and seek out when performed live. I hope Philharmonic audiences feel the same way.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Carmina burana at the New York Philharmonic

I'd never heard Carl Orff's Carmina burana live until I heard it performed by the New York Philharmonic with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and Orfeon Pamplones. I've listened to the piece countless times, analyzed the score, and performed it at Georgetown University when I was in college. But I hadn't had the opportunity to experience the work in concert before tonight.

Fruhbeck de Burgos kept the piece moving, barely pausing between movements. He conducted without a score and Orfeon Pamplones (the chorus) sang from memory. That was impressive. Carmina burana is a long, complex work in medieval German and Latin, with complex harmonies. The choir brought out the rhythms of the words, especially in the "In Taberna" section. I know that the aria "Olim lacus colueram" (the roasting swan) is meant to be funny, but I'd never thought of playing it for laughs. Tenor Nicholas Phan sang of his former life on the lakes with passion, then fanned his face as the men of the choir sang "Now I am roasted black!" After the second verse he tugged at his collar, and at the end of the aria he sat down with a thud, seemingly demoralized. Soprano Emalie Savoy brought out every ounce of Puccini-esque love in "In Trutina" and effortlessly hit the high notes in "Dulcissime." Baritone Jacques Imbrailo was confident in the solo parts of "In Taberna" and I enjoyed his interplay with the choir in those songs. The entire performance lasted barely an hour, but I could have listened to them sing the entire oratorio again. Even the teenagers and pre-teens in the audience, presumably there to see their friends in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, were on their feet at the end of the work.

The first half of the concert was excerpts from Manuel de Falla's Atlantida, a cantata that he left unfinished at his death and was later completed by Ernesto Hallfter. It was not like anything of de Falla's music that I've heard before. I enjoyed it, especially the challenging harmonies and the excellent work of the chorus. But if these are just the excerpts, I'm not sure the world is ready for the full cantata (which apparently clocks in at around four hours). I was fine with the 25 minutes of music that we heard tonight.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Glenn Dicterow is stepping down as concertmaster

WQXR's blog reports that Glenn Dicterow will step down as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic at the end of the 2013-14 season. He's been in that post since 1980, the longest-serving concertmaster in the orchestra's history. He's going to Los Angeles to head up the strings and chamber music program at USC.

Here's the Philharmonic's press release on Dicterow, including an overview of his illustrious career, both with the Philharmonic and as a solo and chamber musician.

Dicterow's departure will be another major transition for the Philharmonic in a few short years. Zarin Mehta retires as president of the orchestra at the end of this season, and the new president, Matthew VanBesien, and the orchestra have some big decisions to make. Avery Fisher Hall needs major renovations and there are not many locations in New York where an orchestra the size of the Philharmonic (and its audience) can play for a season. Alan Gilbert is in the third year of a five-year contract as Music Director and I haven't heard anything about whether the Philharmonic plans to extend his deal. Dicterow will be around for two more seasons so the orchestra has plenty of time to find a successor, but that's a big job to fill. Three years after Stanley Drucker's retirement, the Philharmonic is still looking for a principal clarinetist after Ricardo Morales turned down the job in January. If it's taking that long to fill the clarinetist post, how long will it take to find a new concertmaster? And if Alan Gilbert's job security is a question, who will make the decision about the concertmaster? The music director has the ultimate say in who gets those jobs.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Yuja Wang and Jaap van Zweden bring down the house at the New York Philharmonic

I had a feeling we were in for a treat with sensational pianist Yuja Wang performing with the New York Philharmonic for the first time in New York, and with conductor Jaap van Zweden making his debut as well. But I didn't know just how delightful it would be.

Yuja Wang performed Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the orchestra on the first half of the concert. I'm not familiar with the work, so it's hard for me to judge it, but she played the hell out of the piece. Ms. Wang was in complete control of the piece, with a captivating performance that wowed the audience. I could have used a bit more balance from the orchestra, as the other musicians covered the piano in places. But she shone through the entire work, ending with a flourish that brought the Avery Fisher Hall crowd to its feet. Ms. Wang played not one but two encores, and I thought that the enthusiasm of the crowd might force her to play all night.

After intermission, the Philharmonic retook the stage for Mahler's Symphony No. 1. Mr. van Zweden led the orchestra through a terrific rendition of this warhouse of a piece. I've heard several conductors lead the Philharmonic in Mahler's 1st, and Mr. van Zweden's version was as exciting and absorbing as any of them. He leapt, lunged, and nearly danced on the podium, all while maintaining a clear beat and easy-to-read cues. During the Ländler I half-expected him to show us the dance itself. He swayed a little in the third movement, putting on as much of a show as the orchestra. The fourth movement was an explosion of sound and the conclusion of the work (with the horns and a trombone standing for once!) brought the audience to its feet.

While no performance of Mahler's 1st Symphony will ever live up to that 2009 performance with Alan Gilbert (mere months before assuming the post as the Philharmonic's music director), Mr. van Zweden's work tonight was a close second. I hope the Philharmonic can bring him back to New York for a return engagement soon. I look forward to seeing him on a podium here again.

Friday, April 13, 2012

New content coming soon!

As this blog has devolved into concert reviews, look for a review of the New York Philharmonic's performance on Saturday night in this space sometime early Sunday morning. I wouldn't pass up the chance to hear them perform Mahler's Symphony No. 1, nor could I miss Yuja Wang playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3. That reminds me, I need to print out my tickets.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway

In the past year I've become a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. I don't know why I avoided it for so long but I watched the movie last March and instantly fell in love with the songs and the story. I bought the soundtrack (original concept rock opera) and saw two community theater productions of the show in Ohio last spring. When I found out the show was coming back to Broadway this spring it was only a matter of time before I bought tickets for it.

The short review: we loved every minute of it. The band is tight, with plenty of winds and brass to balance the heavy guitars and drums. The set design is industrial and functional, with moving staircases and walkways that give the actors plenty of different places to interact and observe. And the cast is phenomenal. Paul Nolan's Jesus sings like Roger Daltrey with a little less bravado and more resignation. He knows what awaits him, and even as he cries out to God in "Gethsemane," he seems more angry that he doesn't know why it's happening than that it happens at all. We saw Nick Cartell as Judas this evening, and his struggle appears less with the betrayal of Jesus than with the way history will remember him. Tom Hewitt was excellent as a conflicted Pontius Pilate, and I had a hard time picturing him as the same actor I saw in The Rocky Horror Show in 2000. 

My only complaint is that the sound designers need to balance the singers and the band just a little better. I could understand the singers clearly but the band was more than loud enough. They did warn us in the pre-show announcements that it would be a loud production. But that's deducting a tenth of a point from what is otherwise a fantastic production. I wish I could see it again. It's that good.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Beethoven and Stravinsky with David Zinman and the Philharmonic

We were fortunate to have tickets to the opening weekend of the New York Philharmonic's "Modern Beethoven" festival. The first series of concerts featured Beethoven's Second and Seventh Symphonies with Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra in between.

The program notes described guest conductor David Zinman's efforts to bring a fresh approach to Beethoven's symphonies, with research into different editions of the scores and consultations with a variety of musicologists and other experts. As a result, the Beethoven symphonies sparkled and excited me in ways I'd never thought possible from works I've heard so many times. A simple emphasis on a harmony or a change in dynamics brought out parts of the works I'd never heard before. And there were a few new additions: an brief oboe cadenza in the first movement of the Seventh and a tweaked French horn line in the third movement, among others. The Second Symphony had a few subtle changes as well. None of them made a major difference in any of the works, but as a whole they made the entire experience more exhilarating. I listened as actively as ever, waiting to see what other tweaks Zinman might have brought to the music. I've seldom been as involved with a performance of an orchestra warhorse like the Seventh. Audiences for the next two weekends are in for a real treat, if this first series of concerts is any indication of what Zinman has in mind.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I don't usually suggest recordings...

The New York Philharmonic has released a recording of their performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony from January. The final performance in the weekend series featured the now-infamous iPhone alarm incident. Thankfully, the Philharmonic's recording is not from that ill-fated Tuesday evening, or at least the last movement is not. As I listened to the recording, I was tempted to set off the alarm on my phone during the closing bars to reenact the event. But as when I was there in the hall, I got caught up in the music and only gave the incident a passing thought.

If you're curious to hear how glorious Mahler's music can sound and why Alan Gilbert's interpretation of this work earned such rave reviews, you can buy the recording from the online music store of your choice via the Philharmonic's website. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

a few quick tech thoughts

I don't know why I keep charging my work-issued Blackberry. I never look at it. I can get my work email on my phone and my (also-work-issued) iPad, so I hardly ever use the Blackberry. I suppose it's more out of a sense of obligation that I keep it nearby and ready. I can't stand the interface compared to iOS, and the little keys have never been kind to my giant fingers.

Speaking of the iPad, I've been reading George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones novels on my tablet with the Kindle e-reader. I wanted to read the books but I couldn't imagine carrying around large book after large book for weeks. It seemed to be the right time to give ebooks a shot. Aside from a bit of glare on the screen, I hardly notice I'm not reading a paper book. The fonts look the same as the printed versions, and while there are no page numbers, there's a page counter and index a tap away. I love that the Kindle app includes a free dictionary to look up those archaic medieval terms, and the search feature makes it easy to find a character's previous appearances. I do have to be careful when I'm carrying the iPad around at lunch, especially outside. It would break my heart to drop it.

I still like real, physical books for some things, like signed copies and sharing with friends, but I have to admit that ebooks are better than I expected. And given a dearth of space on my bookshelf at home, I think there will be more ebooks in my future. My future is now!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An obligatory SOPA/PIPA post

It's Internet Blackout Day, etc., etc. You know that already. The Unofficial Apple Weblog posted a long but worthwhile article this morning about why they're opposed to the bills. Chris Rawson describes in detail all of the effort and trouble he has when he wants to watch the latest episode of a new show from a major US network in New Zealand. It's maddeningly difficult, and it's all because the MPAA and RIAA want to prevent piracy. Here's the best quote I've read all day about this issue:

Here's how you stop piracy: You won't. Ever. There will always be people who want something for nothing, and no amount of trying is going to stop those people from looking for and finding it. Just accept it and move on.
Here's how you reduce piracy: Make it easier for people who want to access and pay for your content. That means no more arbitrary restrictions on what devices we can view it on. That means making the same content available to everyone, worldwide, simultaneously or as close to it as feasible, and at a fair price that consumers won't balk at.
I've already contacted my congressional representatives, even though Senators Schumer and Gillibrand are co-sponsors of the bill. Maybe all our opposition to it will sway them to withdraw their support. Maybe it will get them to tell the MPAA, RIAA, and other organizations behind the legislation to find different ways of solving this issue that don't involve censoring the innocent.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic play Bruckner

On Friday night we braved the wind and cold to venture uptown to Lincoln Center for a New York Philharmonic performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8. It was my first time seeing former Philharmonic music director in person on the podium, but Bruckner was the main reason I was there. The 8th Symphony is a massive work: 80+ minutes of gorgeous brass chorales, shimmering string chords, and beautiful woodwind solos. Mehta led the orchestra through a well-paced reading of the symphony, taking things a bit slower than I expected in the first and second movements, but always with a sense of motion and energy. The third movement built to climax after climax, culminating in perhaps my favorite moment in the entire work, a tremendous explosion with a cymbal crash. (One thing I like about hearing this piece in person is watching the percussionists on cymbal and triangle, who sit behind the timpani for the entire work only to play a few measures in the slow movement.) The finale thrilled me as always, from its terrifying opening to its glorious conclusion. Mehta seemed to be much appreciated and well-received by the audience. As with Mahler, if the Philharmonic is playing Bruckner, I'll do whatever I can to be there.

A couple of other notes:

There were plenty of empty seats in the first and second tiers. I guess Bruckner isn't as beloved in New York as Mahler.

The audience laughed and applauded after Alec Baldwin's recorded announcement to turn off cell phones. I didn't see anyone on the orchestra level with phones out during the concert. And I saw ushers on either side of the orchestra level, near the side doors, taking turns keeping an eye on things.

The young (college-age?) kid in front of me conducted and cued a tiny orchestra in front of him for most of the concert. His girlfriend didn't notice or didn't care. The guy next to him seemed exasperated and left quickly after the concert ended. It was more than a little distracting, and I was sitting behind the kid. I might have kicked him if I'd been next to him.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Alan Gilbert responds to the Mahler phone incident

Alex Ross linked to Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert's response to last night's Mahler incident in the New York Times' ArtsBeat blog. Gilbert was as astonished by the audacity of the offending patron as the rest of the audience. The Times also notes that the ushers should have stepped in to get the people involved to silence the phone, but did not.

The ushers do not answer directly to orchestra management, and Mr. Gilbert said no ushers were in sight at the time of the ringing. “I heard this morning that ushers in the hall claimed they didn’t hear it, which sounds ridiculous to me,” he said. “Everybody could hear it.”

I almost always sit in the second tier center of Avery Fisher Hall, which gives me a view of the entire front of the hall. I never see ushers near the front of the stage. If the ushers stand inside the hall, they must be at the back. So I can understand why they might not have heard anything if they weren't in the hall itself, but the hallway outside. But that defeats the purpose of having ushers in the first place. I'll look again on Friday night for some floor-level ushers.

We're not kidding when we say "silence your phones" at a concert

Last night, at the New York Philharmonic, the final performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 had an extra performer: a persistent ringing iPhone. According to several eyewitness reports (see the comments as well), a patron in the left front of the hall near the stage neglected to silence their phone and then paid no heed as it rang and rang with an alarm throughout the last movement of the symphony. Music Director Alan Gilbert broke protocol and stopped the orchestra, admonished the concertgoer, who by this time had figured out how to turn off their phone or otherwise stop the alarm, then apologized to the audience before resuming the symphony.

Mr. Kinchen discussed the audience's reaction to the ringing phone. After Gilbert stopped the orchestra, some people in the hall shouted "get out!" "throw them out!" and "Turn off the phone!" Mr. Kinchen took issue with the reaction, suggesting that it was disproportionate to the severity of the offense:

Whoever had owned the phone had made an honest mistake, one that just about anyone else in the audience could possibly have made, yet here, at Lincoln Center, listening to The Symphony, this violation was enough to draw the ire and ill will of hundreds of people. Sophisticated people who had come for a night of culture and music and proceeded to be reduced, for a few moments, to the early stages of an angry mob.
In the name of keeping with the etiquette of this classy and cultured event, these people got so worked up they were actually shouting, not cursing mind you, for that would be uncultured, but shouting angrily. And when Gilbert finally dealt with the situation, the response was the cathartic release of pent up aggression. Blatant, almost animal aggression, at the symphony, over a ringing phone. Maybe I’m new to the whole symphony culture but to me it seemed a bit much. 

I wasn't there, so my comments are based on what I've read above. As a musician and an audience member, there is nothing that offends me more than a disruptive noise during a concert. When I'm performing, a noise such as a ringing phone distracts me and breaks my concentration. I'm certain it does the same thing for my fellow musicians, who are all trying to hear each other and play together as an ensemble. As an audience member, it's even worse. I listen to recorded classical music at work, on the subway, and at home. I'm used to interruptions such as answering the phone, talking to my co-workers, cats breaking things, etc. But when I go to a performance in a concert hall, I've spent money for an uninterrupted musical experience. For two hours, I get the enjoyment of classical music without the distractions of phone calls, Twitter, people talking about work, and so on.

When a phone rings during a concert, that's intrusive not just to the musicians who are working so hard to put on the best performance possible, but to the audience that has paid money to enjoy a concert in near-silence. That's why the Philharmonic has Alec Baldwin remind everyone to silence cell phones and other electronic devices. It's not just for the musicians, it's for the audience as well. And that means everyone. How hard is it to turn off your phone for two hours? If you can't live without your phone being on and available, maybe you shouldn't go to a classical music concert.

As for the audience reaction, I agree with Mr. Kinchen that some of the shouts from the crowd seem to have been excessive. I'm sure that they came from people like myself who would be offended that a ringing phone disturbed their intimate musical experience. But that doesn't mean you should shout out things like "get out!" and "thousand dollar fine!" There's a certain level of decorum we should maintain at concerts and while one person clearly ignored that by leaving their phone on, that's no excuse for the mob mentality that comes with the anger at the disruption. There's no need for angry shouts. I doubt that the crowd would have turned on that patron physically, although there was a brawl in the balcony at a Boston Pops concert a few years ago. In any case, let's try to remain calm even in our anger.

I do approve of Gilbert's reaction to the patron: abject humiliation. If it had been me sitting there, I would have been so mortified that I might not ever return to Avery Fisher Hall. I'm going back on Friday night and my phone will most definitely be turned off long before Alec Baldwin reminds me.

Monday, January 09, 2012

some quick thoughts on Saturday night's concert

What struck me about Saturday night's New York Philharmonic performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony were the woodwinds. This symphony is a feast for the wind section and the Philharmonic's players (with extra flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons) made a strong impression, especially in the second and third movements.  The double fugue in the third movement really stood out, as the entire orchestra plowed through Mahler's intricate counterpoint. The last movement, with its lush, full string chords, reminded me of the finale of his Third Symphony, but this time the melodies were more elegiac than romantic. Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic received several well-deserved ovations, pointing out once again that New York loves Mahler (and, I hope, Gilbert's interpretations of Mahler).

Friday, January 06, 2012

I'm really looking forward to Saturday night

Saturday night will be my first of two New York Philharmonic concerts this month, the other one next Saturday evening.  Paul Pelkonen at Superconductor posted a review of last night's performance and it sounds like Alan Gilbert has successfully transplanted his approach to Mahler's Ninth Symphony from his previous post at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra to New York.  Yesterday, I listened to Gilbert's 2009 recording of the symphony with that ensemble and hoped that I'd hear something similar to that on Saturday.  It sounds like I will.  Also, Thomas Ades' new work "Polaris" uses antiphonal brass, which is always a plus.

I'll try to have a brief review of my own up here on Saturday or Sunday.