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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Put in twice as many toilets for the ladies. Just do it. Life will be better.
- Have the orchestra make a proper entrance. This is a performance, people. Try to at least look like you give a crap.
- 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.