10 January 2010

George Benjamin at the San Francisco Symphony: Week 1

I bought a rush ticket for last Friday’s San Francisco Symphony concert, the first of two weeks featuring this year’s Phyllis C. Wattis Composer in Residence, George Benjamin, whose music I was completely unfamiliar with.

I’ve heard rumors that some rush tickets are $15 this season, but I have no idea which concerts those are, since it’s always $20 whenever I go, which is still a bargain, or at least a good deal. Unfortunately this was one of those 6.5 concerts, and though the early start time is fine with me (and also with the long-time Symphony subscriber sitting behind me, who announced she tends to fall asleep at the later concerts, and yeah, we’ve all been there; maybe she kept kicking my seat in an attempt to stay awake even at the earlier hour – seriously, what is wrong with people? I’m 6’ 1”, which makes me roughly half a foot taller than this woman, and I can sit through a concert without kicking the seat in front of me even once; here’s a little tip for concertgoers: if your foot is touching something that is not the floor, you’re irritating someone) the basic concept seems flawed: the concerts seem meant for those who aren't regular symphony-goers, but I don't think that's who actually attends. They drop a piece of music, but they add in chat-time, so, if I may quote myself, and I may, the concert is just as long, only with less of what you came for. (Since Thursday's concert was in Cupertino, which might as well be the moon for a non-driver, and Saturday's would require an expensive BART ride in, I decided I would accept the sacrifice.)

Obviously you need to be an excellent communicator to conduct a symphony orchestra, but it’s a type of specialized communication that doesn’t translate automatically into speaking well in front of crowds. I keep thinking of dancing bears: sure, you can teach them to dance, but maybe you’re better off just letting them do their bear things without the circus element. Conductor David Robertson was fairly fluid and funny, going off on tangents about microphone backfeed and suchlike, and though I’m not in any position to criticize someone else going off on a tangent, most of what he said was, however entertaining, pretty basic and not particularly illuminating. That’s not a criticism of Robertson, who was better at this than some I’ve heard; it’s a criticism of the concept.

Speakers generally try to be funny, and that’s not always the best approach to hearing a new piece of music. And a lot of what was said seemed, as it often does, aimed at an audience of schoolchildren, and the only schoolchildren in attendance Friday night were members of The Crowden School Allegro Chorus, who added their pure and harmonious voices to Jubilation, the first piece on the program.

Maybe I overestimate what audiences know. I assume long-time concert-goers have picked stuff up osmotically, and that newcomers will eventually figure stuff out (like why the configuration of the musicians changes between pieces – come on, they even do that at rock concerts; it’s not a difficult concept, but this was something explained to us Friday evening). I am regularly surprised at comments I overhear indicating people don’t know things I thought were common knowledge, at least among regular concert-goers. Here’s an exchange I overheard in the men’s room (well, not really an exchange, since the probably aged speakee mumbled softly and unintelligibly): “Do you know John Adams? [mumble] Do you know John Adams? John Adams? [mumble] He’s a composer. [mumble] He’s different from this guy. What is this guy? Benjamin something?” And that was after we'd heard Benjamin's music and seen him in person. Ah, the hazard of having a first name as your last name! Art is always uphill. Forget art; life is always uphill.

Even given the possibly unspongelike nature of an audience’s grasp, I really don’t understand the panicked need for this sort of dog-whisperer calming talk about music. The assumption seems to be that, like Brussels sprouts, this is supposed to be good for us even though no one really likes it, though maybe we can be jollied into playing along. It’s like going to a restaurant with exotic or surprising cuisine and getting endless speeches from the waiter rather than just tasting. We’re already in the concert hall. I think that might indicate we’re available to listen to music. Instead we get talks about how sometimes music is pretty, and sometimes it’s loud, and sometimes it’s not pretty so we should brace ourselves. (What world does the audience live in? You wouldn’t believe the ugly noisome pop music shit I’m forced to listen to on every BART ride home. And I’m supposed to be frightened by Alban Berg? Please.) The approach is not that music is a bomb that needs to be disarmed; it’s more that music is like some matted hairy creature, some sort of skunk or opossum, possibly dead, lying in our driveway – see, it’s not so scary! You just pick it up with a shovel and pray it's not living!

I know this is an odd thing for blogger boy here to say, but I honestly feel the best approach to music, or any art, even (or especially) ones you think you might not immediately like, is to stop having opinions. Just sit there and pay attention. There's a reason mindful sitting is a crucial component of those mystic traditions that try to lift us above the mundane.

The source of my irritation here, besides the general low blood-sugar caused by the 6:30 start time, is that the first half of the concert consisted of two pieces by George Benjamin: Jubilation and Dance Figures. Each piece is about fifteen minutes long. And in between we had half an hour of stage chat (trust me, I was checking my watch regularly during chat-time). At least Robertson did have the orchestra play a few sections of the music. But in the same amount of time they could have played each piece twice, and repetition being what it is and our minds being what they are, that would have been a much better introduction to the music – about which, I realize, I have said nothing. Well, I don’t feel that hearing two fifteen-minute pieces once really qualifies me to wax either poetic or analytic on the art of George Benjamin. But I liked what I heard enough to plan to go to the second week of concerts, and to plan to get some of his CDs. I could definitely hear a reminiscence at times of his teacher Messiaen, but with a leaner and less mystic quality. But the program book emphasized the wide range of possibilities in Benjamin’s sound-world, and I think the Symphony could have offered us more than two short pieces on this program, especially with the amount of kapok we were given.

Robertson also had George Benjamin come out during chat-time. You know who’s even less skilled at speaking to crowds than conductors? Composers! I say this even though I personally find it thrilling when a composer appears to take a bow – I have vivid memories of my excitement when Messiaen himself came on stage in Boston’s Symphony Hall after the US premiere of scenes from St Francois. But as with writers, a composer who is a crowd-pleasing speaker is the exception. Benjamin seemed like a very nice, low-key man, very courteous; my impression is that he is probably a wonderful teacher (as I understand he actually is), being attentive and considerate and not so impressed with himself that he has to impose his style on the student. But that very courtesy and reticence make him a perhaps less than sparkling public speaker, outside of his chosen language, music.

So I do understand to some extent the excitement of the personal touch, but I don’t understand why it’s considered vital that we are verbally stroked into musical acquiescence. You’ve already told people what you’re playing, and they can attend or not. I’m not that frightened by music, and if symphony-goers are, then you have the wrong audience, and you need to shoot them and start over again.

After the intermission we had a galloping rendition of Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, which I enjoyed (the majestic ending was particularly strong), though I did wish at moments for a less driven, more blooming performance. It seems strange to think that Scotland was once a major cultural touchstone, and even stranger that it was pretty much all the doing of Sir Walter Scott. I have a fairly unreasonable aversion to reading Scottish dialect, but let me recommend Old Mortality at least; just get an edition with a glossary in the back. Uh, maybe I should point out that I’m part Scottish? I don’t want angry comments from the Scottish Anti-Defamation League. Look, I just don’t like Robert Burns that much. Sue me. There’s a very funny passage in Mark Twain’s Following the Equator in which he settles a dispute between two Scotsmen on how Scottish peasants pronounce “three” by inventing a couplet supposedly by Burns, whose authority is beyond question, even to the most argumentative Scots. See? You just tell people that something is so, and even the cantankerous will usually accept it. The Symphony should really take that approach with new music.

Update: Check here for Lisa Hirsch's account of the Sunday concert, which gives much more detail about the music, and I'm jealous that I didn't think of the color-field painting comparison.


Civic Center said...

Well, well, well. Though you hate the word "rant," that is what you have given us, and as usual I totally agree. Thankfully, I went to the concert on Saturday evening where there was no talk and no explanation, only the uninvolving music of George Benjamin along with not very interesting orchestral transcriptions of some Debussy etudes.

The pianist and pedagogue Sarah Cahill was my host at the concert, and she interviewed George Benjamin live on her KALW show this evening. The interview was great, and the composer is actually quite articulate. It's just that his music sucks, as evidenced by the judicious selections that were played, which left no doubt. Ms. Cahill, unlike me, was kind, skillful and encouraging to the composer, but I had a sneaking feeling she agreed with my assessment.

Ced said...

While I agree on the rant in general, in this particular occurrence some of the point of the Composer-In-Residence Week is to get the composer to talk about his stuff. So some talking has to be expected, if not tolerated! I got upset when I went to the concerts where MTT was being recorded for the Keeping Score series and was babbling ad nauseam. But that's another concert where I should have been aware they were going to be some talk.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Sure, part of the program is to have the composer speak about his or her music. But there are better ways of doing this: in conversation before the concert, as they did on the other nights, or by having the composer speak (either off the cuff or with prepared remarks) about the specific pieces we're going to hear, or by having a conversation such as the one with Cahill that Mike refers to. None of those things were done -- it was pretty much just generalized talking. I find it bizarre that we're given music chat instead of music, and I don't like the whole fear-of-music that seems to me to underlie the approach.

Yeah, I try to avoid any Keeping Score concerts. It's a strain looking interested for that long, for one thing.