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.