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Yuja Wang plays the piano very well

Last night I went to see Yuja Wang perform with the San Francisco Symphony. She played extremely well. It was beautiful and impressive, which is all you can really ask for.

After the performance, there was a Q&A session with Yuja and Mason Bates, who had premiered a work for electronics and orchestra in the same concert. My question was “If you were in charge, what would you do to improve the traditional classical concert experience?”

There was an audible “ooh” from the audience, the moderator got very uncomfortable, Mason mumbled something about video program notes and Yuja said “er… next question please.”

I thought it was a pretty soft question, open to answers like “I’d like to see more young people enjoying classical music” or, perhaps something as banal as “free tickets for poor people” or “world peace”. But no. Apparently, it is a heresy to suggest that concerts aren’t already perfect.

So let’s take a look at last night’s show – a fairly typical one – and see if it could be improved in any way:

Three months before the concert, I decide I want to go, and convince somebody to throw down $186 plus fees for my tickets. Thanks, btw. They were great seats.

Three days before the concert, I make a reservation at the fancy restaurant near symphony hall, mostly so I can use their valet parking. There is no traffic quite like 2,000 rich people trying to get home, so I do anything I can to avoid the Performing Arts garage. The restaurant is fully booked, but squeeze me in because I pretend to be important.

On the day of the concert:

5:00pm – I leave work early to make my 6pm dinner reservation

6:00 – I’m stuck in traffic, and call ahead to get them to hold my table

6:20 – I get to the restaurant where, for some reason, they haven’t changed the one vegetarian option on the menu in several years. Valet parking is $12.

7:30 – It’s just as well nobody want dessert, because it is time to pick up tickets. Dinner comes to $125, including tip.

7:35 – I arrive at the venue, straight into the will-call queue. You can’t get to the restrooms or the gift shop without a ticket, so just hop on one leg for a moment. Everybody else, I’ll meet you, er, here, because there’s nowhere you can go either.

7:40 – I’ve got tickets, I’ve had a pee, and its time to mill around with old people, all seemingly lost because the terms used to describe where you might find your seats are the same incomprehensible ones used to justify charging a range of extortionate prices for them. Orchestra or Premiere Orchestra? But this is the Loge, sir. Lost? Buy a drink. It is the only other thing you can do here.

7:55 – I’ve been hanging around in the venue for twenty minutes, and finally somebody gives me a program. I sit down to read it, and they turn off the lights. The orchestra shuffles on stage as if nobody can see them. For a reasons that aren’t entirely clear, they are wearing tailcoats. I feel a bit under-dressed in an outfit that only cost $2,500. People practice their instruments. In principle, I’m in favor of that, although this doesn’t seem like the time.

8:00 – A young man in a suit comes on stage and tells us that the program order has changed, and they’ll be doing Sibelius first.

8:01 – Michael Tilson Thomas comes on stage and tells us which bits of Sibelius 4 we should find glorious, creepy, scary, joyous and exciting in the manner of a small chid explaining why the joke he’s about to tell you is funny.

8:10 – The orchestra amble through Sibelius in the manner of a small child telling a joke they don’t understand. While I can see which bits of it are supposed to be, there’s no part of it that I can actually find glorious, creepy, scary, joyous or the least bit exciting. The peculiar thing is that this is probably the easiest and best-known work on the program, so they either didn’t rehearse it at all, or they simply can’t be bothered to play it properly.

8:50 – This shambolic embarrassment of mezzo-forte draws to a close, and the crowd dutifully applauds. Michael accepts the applause and walks off. Then he comes back.

9:00 – MTT introduces the world premiere of a piece they commissioned from Mason Bates. I must admit that I switched off after MTT said that Mason would be DJing when the man was clearly using a laptop to trigger samples.

9:05 – They play the piece. It is nowhere near as bad as all the talking had led me to believe. The orchestra play very well. MTT fiddles with something with buttons on. Maybe he was turning the brass up. They certainly seem to have located their balls. The tuba player gets his mute out, which is a rare treat. MTT could have talked us through all the things you don’t often see that put in an appearance in the piece. That would have made us feel like we’d learned something interesting.

9:30 – A standing ovation. I wonder if the orchestra would have played the Sibelius better if they’d paid him to write it.

9:35 – I need to pee, so the interval provides welcome respite. I don’t know how all these old people manage. There’s always a long queue at the ladies, but not at the gents. This seems to be true of all concert halls. Somebody should look into that.

9:40 – There is nothing to do in the interval except top up on fluids, so we sit in the crowded lobby and I try to convince my +1 that Sibelius is a good composer.

10:00 – We’re back inside. Yuja Wang comes on stage and redeems the whole sorry affair with a rendition of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto that I will never forget. At the end of each movement, we suppress the urge to fill the awkward silence with rapturous applause for reasons that nobody can quite remember.

10:30 – It’s over. Almost everybody stands up to clap, then almost everybody leaves.

10:40 – The performers return to the stage hoping nobody will ask them anything tougher than “what is your favorite color”.

11:00 – I’ve offended the artist I was here to meet, so it’s time to go home. Since the restaurant is now closing, they’ve kindly fetched my car, and have it sitting outside. I congratulate myself for having really worked out how to do this. Tip is $2. The car needs gas. Where did they park it? Sacramento? That’ll be $35.

12:45 – I’m at home and in bed, trying to sleep but somehow plagued by the notion that my evening out cost $350, and that it took eight hours to hear 40 minutes of good music. I could have bought Yuja’s record for $10.

Here’s what I suggest:

  1. If you have to build to concert hall a ten minute walk from the sketchiest public transport stop in town, then plan your car park in a way that takes into account the fact that everybody will want to leave at the same time.
  2. If there is a reason why people without tickets can’t be allowed into the bar, then give me my program while I’m waiting in the will-call line.
  3. Put in twice as many toilets for the ladies. Just do it. Life will be better.
  4. Have the orchestra make a proper entrance. This is a performance, people. Try to at least look like you give a crap.
  5. If you have no intention of playing a piece properly, cut it from the program and start the whole thing an hour later. Then we can eat a proper dinner, won’t need an interval to pee, and won’t be too bored to stay for the Q&A. We might even stay for a drink at the bar afterwards.

UPDATE: More on this issue here.

Comments

15 Comments

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  1. Kriskeloo #
    May 30, 2009

    Well, well, Mr Dischord, very amusing, if caustic. You have some of your father’s jeans, although I guess he wears them tighter than yours! He recommended I read your stuff……

    • properdiscord #
      June 8, 2009

      Thanks!

  2. properdiscord #
    August 28, 2009

    Drew McManus has posted an interesting response to this article on his Adaptistration blog, here:

    http://www.adaptistration.com/?p=5962

    • August 28, 2009

      Thanks for the mention, I hope the way I selectively excerpted your original entry is acceptable. And thanks for all the thought-provoking observations.

  3. August 29, 2009

    You sure have some strong opinions. I would have a hard time criticizing anyone’s interpretation of Sibelius unless I had been conducting a major symphony orchestra for years. Sometimes it can be nice to let someone challenge your interpretation though it is clear that you just did not like the MTT version. Why not hold that grudge against his interpretation and not the entire orchestra’s ability to play? I highly doubt the musicians were *that* awful at playing their parts.

    In the US it is customary for musicians to warm up on the stage. As a double reed player myself this is extremely valuable as my reeds will be different on stage as they were back stage, or at my home studio where I create them. They will even be different than the previous day (most often they do not remain the same for very long). If we do not take the time to make these adjustments on stage you’d have a lot more to complain about when it came to our playing. Orchestras also warmup on stage so that their center of pitches remains constant as the barometric pressure, temperature, humidity etc. will change between the warmup rooms back stage and the concert hall. Just remind yourself that the musicians are doing you a favor by warming up (not practicing, they have done that for hours and hours at home to get where they are today). I think it is incredibly silly to think for a second that some of the world’s best musicians are practicing right before the concert. They probably are putting in 4-5 hours a day on their instruments just to keep their jobs let alone prepare the music for concerts.

    If you would like to know more about the works performed I suggest you go to the pre concert talks… that is what they are for! Programs have notes to give you something to read while the orchestra switches things around between works or during intermission. Don’t expect to be spoon fed since the concert is for performance! A quick trip to the internet will help satisfy any unanswered questions after the performance but keep in mind the symphony is a concert, not a lecture.

    One other thing, regarding ladies rooms and mens rooms. Having worked in a performance hall as management i’m fairly sure I can safely say the long lines for ladies has to do with a biological difference. Typically there are 2-3 times the amount of facilities for ladies but men are just better equipped for that kind of behavior. I trust you can figure it out ;)

    I’m sorry you seem so upset with how classical music unfolds. Your complaints are valid though I think highly unrealistic and certainly going to fall on deaf ears (hehe that one made me laugh). Musicians will always warm up on stage, pre concert talks will always be the source of information, and people will always have different interpretations of your favorite works. next time why not make a weekend trip out of it and go see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

    and i’m sure Yuja really appreciates you patroning her live performance. Buying an album is nice but it will never compare to the artistry of a live concerto. As a performer I can testify that live music is a truly magical experience to make as well as listen to. Please continue to support those you love to listen to, and don’t get too bent up about the small stuff. The truth is that you can make what you wish out of a situation. Keep enjoying classical music!

    • properdiscord #
      August 29, 2009

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for your considered response.

      I don’t need to be a great conductor to see when a performance is poorly prepared. I’ve covered this point in some detail here. The short version is that sloppy playing is pretty obvious.

      You’re not the first person to have explained to me about the need for oboes to warm up, but there’s a difference between warming up (arpeggios, long notes, the same thing every night, things that aren’t in the program) and running through the highlights of Orchester Probespiel. I’m talking mostly about the trumpets here, who can almost always be counted upon to let out at least one Strauss or Mahler extract before the concert starts, as well as giving us a sneak-peek at what the climax of the symphony will sound like. The Strauss and Mahler is just noodling, but practicing music from the program is an unwelcome look behind the curtain that undermines the drama of the performance.

      I’d like it if the orchestra made a bit more of an entrance. A lot of military bands line up in the wings, and then all come on stage at once. It looks tidier, and adds to the sense of occasion. In some orchestras, there are specific sections that do this (often the horns, who I think like to believe that there’s safety in numbers), but it is almost never organized across the whole band. If we could find other ways of looking like this was a performance, then we might not need to rely so heavily on dated devices like the penguin suits.

      I made some very specific criticisms in this article, not because I’m determined to have a bad time, but because I love music and I want as many people as possible to see it done well. That’s why I didn’t criticize anything without suggesting a way to improve it.

      Do you really think my suggested resolutions are all unrealistic? It may be unavoidable that concerts contain more music than can be properly rehearsed, but I think a lot of the audience would be happier to see them get shorter and better. I think most people are just afraid to mention it, fearing the sort of response that this article has provoked. It might be that a shorter line at the ladies just means that they’ll just spend longer in there, in which case I have no sympathy for them. It might be that homeless people would camp out in the bar if they didn’t need tickets – I guess that’s a risk – but would it be so bad if we gave them programs to read outside with everybody else?

      I plan to take a trip to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra soon, partly because it is one of the few great orchestras that I have never seen live, and partly because it may now be unsafe for me to show my face at Davies Symphony Hall, where I have, on occasion, heard some amazing concerts :-)

      Best,

      PD

  4. Debbie #
    August 31, 2009

    I think you do have some valid issues, but I also reacted to some of the things you brought up as “no big deal to me – what’s their beef?” Being an orchestral musician, I’m sure I have a different perspective (and admittedly sometimes a defensive one), but I am also a concertgoer and do not find most things as frustrating as you; indeed, some of the things that annoy you are things I like about the concert experience, or at least take in stride as part of the spectrum of live performance.

    Here are my reactions to some of the points you covered:

    1) If you are bothered by having spent $350 and 8 hours to see this concert, why didn’t you just eat at home (or at an inexpensive place nearer Davies Hall), take public transportation, and walk 10 minutes to the hall rather than spending time and money eating/parking at a restaurant that you didn’t seem to enjoy all that much? If you have mobility issues I do understand, but otherwise it’s a mystery to me why anyone would spend that amount of money to avoid waiting some time getting out of the parking lot and/or taking a 5 to 10 minute walk (I wish we had more convenient public transportation in the Bay Area, but that’s a whole other set of rants).

    I’ve never seen a parking lot designed to allow a bolus of several hundred people to exit quickly, so designing the parking lot differently would have limited benefit, I think. Maybe pre-paying and having lots of exits could improve the situation, but multiple exits probably cause all sorts of other logistical problems for a garage that I can’t even begin to imagine (security, elimination of parking area to provide for exits, etc.).

    Me? I come early, find street parking and walk a long ways, or take BART. Cheaper and less frustrating.

    2) I can’t begin to imagine the kinds of problems that could ensue from letting people into the bar without a ticket to the hall, and I’m sure you’d have some resounding complaints if you encountered them! I know I would. As for handing out programs outside of the seating area, I’ve never been to a venue where programs were dispensed anywhere besides by ushers within the seating area, and it would probably require an increase in the number of volunteer ushers to be present wherever you’d like them to be handing out programs. I’d be surprised if one of the inside ushers would have refused to hand you one if you’d stepped in after picking up your ticket and asked nicely, though.

    3) I agree whole-heartedly about the toilet situation, being female myself. Again, I’ve never been to a performance venue where there were sufficient toilets for the female gender.

    4) I take it from your remarks about military bands making a tidy entrance on stage that you would prefer the orchestra members to provide an orderly display for you and not distract you with any phrases you might be hearing from the evening’s performance, or for that matter any notes from any pieces NOT on the evening’s performance. I have heard the occasional audience member express similar desires, though thankfully not that often; more often I hear people who enjoy seeing and hearing what goes on in the warm-up process. I often wonder if it has to do with the old attitude of the orchestra as humble servants who should only exist to put on a display for the patron. Luckily for me and others like me, orchestras in this part of the world for the most part do not follow that archaic practice. I can guarantee you that my performances would suffer in quality were I to have to try to warm up offstage with my instrument, then drag all my paraphernalia on with me on cue in order to present the military entrance you desire. If it’s as much about the appearance as the music, I guess I don’t understand that.

    As far as what is played during warming up, all performers seem to have their own little litany of passages that they like to use to test their reeds, lips, fingers, whatever (hence the various excerpts you hear and seem to see no reason for). Their utility may not be obvious to you, but I assure you there is a reason for them. Other than world premieres, it seems unlikely that hearing, for example, someone playing a passage from tonight’s repertoire of Brahm’s 2nd would ruin the experience of hearing it later in performance; and even with a premiere, I can’t see how it would “spoil the surprise” for me, since I would be hearing it out of context without the rest of the orchestral parts.

    And having performed with the group in question onstage, I can assure you that they do “give a crap” even if they are not saluting as they march in step onto the stage. This must be what they refer to as a “cultural difference”; around these parts, dedication to the music is not generally measured by synchronized walk-ons. (Forgive my sarcasm, but you seem to enjoy using it fairly liberally yourself.) I will admit that sometimes orchestral musicians do not come on stage with the same “concert face” that you will find on a soloist. I think there are a number of factors contributing to this, including preoccupation with thinking about parts of the music/preoccupation with personal life issues, like being tired, depressed, ailing children or parents, etc./not feeling like they are the spotlight is on them since they are only a small part of the whole/other things I could list but you get the idea. I do try to remember that when I can, but we’re all only (gasp) human. How often in *your* job do you remember to look like you’re perky, fresh, and excited to be there when you really feel like leftover crap inside?

    5) For what it’s worth, I *like* men in penguin suits – go figure. But I guess it’s getting back to your desire to see a certain visual presentation of the orchestra. We don’t all have the same taste. But really, are tails/tuxedos any more antiquated than the idea of a formal procession onto the stage?

    6) 6) I’m sorry you didn’t get the performance quality you were expecting on part of the program. This happens sometimes – it’s a characteristic of live music in general. And sometimes when a new piece is programmed, especially if it turns out to be more complex than anticipated, a conductor will make the choice to spend more time on it out of respect for the composer, and the “old chestnuts” do get a bit of short shrift in rehearsal; usually with a group as good as SFS, this works out OK anyway, but obviously not always, as your experience shows. But they can’t exactly cancel that piece on the program at the last minute. Sometimes a new piece isn’t even finished until just before rehearsals start, or in-rehearsal revisions take up more rehearsal time than expected; all the conductor can do at that point is make the best of the situation. It just isn’t always a perfect world in the world of live performance. If one requires consistent perfection, I guess one can stay at home with the CDs, but I think they would be missing out on the magical experience Joseph refers to above. Maybe it’s a control issue; perhaps now that we can hear things on CDs that have been tweaked into perfection, in the comfort of our own homes, the experience of going to a concert hall and hearing an orchestra with all its lumps and bumps is not attractive to some people anymore. For me, the unpredictability of live performance gives it humanity and makes it all the more rewarding.

  5. prowler #
    February 15, 2010

    whoa there there mr revolutionary, I can see some of your points but changing toilet-related policy is taking it too far

  6. May 12, 2011

    I visited some friends of mine in San Francisco a few months back, and we all went to see the SF Symphony + Chorus do the Mozart Requiem etc. under MTT.

    The other major work was Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel”, which was performed so well I was in a trance, broken only by the occasional walking-stick clatter and mobile phone ring.

    I really enjoyed MTT’s introduction to and thoughts on the piece, but, as I explained to my friends at the time, I don’t think I could bear it if he’d done the same for Beethoven 5. I think Sibelius counts, too.

  7. January 31, 2013

    Magnificent site. Plenty of helpful info here.
    I’m sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious. And naturally, thanks in your sweat!

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