To start off, I’d like to offer sincere thanks to SFMike for kindly taking me to the Symphony last night and for being a thoughtful and considerate host, because I’m going to start sounding like a whiney little ingrate right about . . . now, because Davies Hall is not only depressingly ugly and acoustically problematic, it’s also excruciatingly uncomfortable, and not even in a gratifyingly severe “I am sitting still for hours on this hard bench absorbing Parsifal because I am a worthy warrior for Art” kind of way, but more in a “why does this fine expensive plush seat feel like steerage” kind of way, because – and I’ve noticed this phenomenon in that hall many times and in many locations, so it’s not just that we all, me included, might have a bit of winter holiday weight to take off – if you get three regular-sized men sitting next to each other, you’re crammed in so close that any move on anyone’s part, unless carefully controlled and regulated and slowly and calmly executed, can seem like the sort of territorial grab that can only end in ugliness.
It makes it difficult to enjoy a fine performance.
Mike was on the aisle and I was in the second seat in; the third man slipped in beside me right before the concert began and though he was lean and about my height I could tell right away that I had to sit there with my arms folded across my chest, trying not even to breathe too deeply, lest I bump up against both seatmates. I kept having to shut my eyes during the performance because without meaning to I found myself scanning the view for empty seats I might slip into at intermission. The house was quite full, but there was a tempting row behind the stage, an entirely empty last row mocking me with the promise of unattainable comforts.
We started off with Elegie, from 2002, by Valentin Vasilyevich Silvestrov, which is one of those pieces of music that are like a Japanese ink painting showing distant mountains and the occasional tree looming through the silvery-gray mist. Hearing the musicians warming up beforehand, I caught what I assumed to be, and what indeed turned out to be, parts of the score, so I knew it would be somewhere in the direction of the Arvo-Partish, the Tavenerian, the Goreckian in general effect. Silvestrov’s name was sort of familiar to me but I can’t say I had heard much of his music. I still can't say I've heard much of it, since Elegie is only about six minutes long. It’s a rich six minutes, and I realize that this is not an aesthetic era of the expansive but rather an age of the fragmentary, the brief, the allusive – or maybe that perception is just a function of my increasingly distracted and impatient mind – but still. I hate it when the Symphony pretends it's championing new music and performing it frequently, when really they’re just tossing a tiny amuse-bouche towards us, and the last notes are melting away before the coughers and wrapper-rustlers have even started to settle in.
Next up was the evening’s main event, the glamorous Helene Grimaud performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. I have the impression of a lively, glowing performance, with her steely fingers (of which we had an excellent view) producing surprisingly warm and fluid sounds, but I have to admit that even though I love Grimaud and I love Schumann, and hearing her play him was the reason I wanted to go to this concert, I kept being pulled back into my own physical discomfort and sense of constriction – wondering which thigh was going to go numb first, holding my legs rigidly together so they didn’t crash into anyone else’s space, occasionally attempting to extend my arms in front of me only to find that crossed on my chest was really the only place they’d fit . . . conscious the whole time of being in my body. I couldn't even watch Grimaud's fingers flashing over the keyboard without being conscious not of the wonderful sounds they were producing but of the prodigious physical effort and muscle memory involved. I felt the experience was a subject suitable for a high-toned allegory in some nineteenth-century French salon painting, featuring lots of those marbleized and slightly surprised-looking nudes that fill those slick pictures: The Soul, Yearning for Union with the Transcendent as Represented by the Muse of Music, Is Thwarted by the Pains of Mortal Matter.
All those talented people up there, with their years of education and practice and experience, laboring mightily to produce the sensational vibrations of music, and all I could do was try to figure out when I could gulp some air and whether I could risk wiping my nose. I wish I had something better to offer you, but I can’t pretend (or won’t pretend) that that wasn’t my experience of the concert. It’s ironic because to me singing and other forms of music-making are very much about the body, its capabilities and endurances, its muscles and strength and the air that we take in and send out (which is one reason I prefer unamplified singing, amplification being in my eyes akin to steroid use). And I just could not get outside my own body.
At the intermission Mike gallantly offered to switch seats with me, so that I could lean into the aisle, after I happened to mention what an unbelievably excruciating contortionist ordeal I had suffered. But happily several people behind us left, so as the lights dimmed and right before conductor Kirill Karabits came back out (well, since Mike had pointed out the resemblance, I kept thinking of it as “right before Justin Timberlake came back out”) I slipped into the aisle seat in the row behind us. I asked the twinkly old man sitting three seats in if it was OK for me to sit there and he said, “Yes! Now I don’t have to try to see over you!” So there was an empty seat between me and him, and between Mike and the third man. If Robert Frost had been a concert-goer, he would have realized that it is not fences but empty seats that make good neighbors.
You’d think I’d now be able to relax and enjoy the second half of the concert, which consisted of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, once, of course, I got past the irony that it was the first part of the concert I really wanted to hear. You’d think that, but . . . having been so tightly boxed in for the first half, I was now distracted by my new-found ability to lean and loaf at my ease, in a free and Whitmanesque way. I don’t know, I might have been less easily distracted by the chance to use the armrests or extend my legs slightly if we had been given a different piece of music, for the Symphonic Dances, though perfectly pleasant, seem like the sort of thing I could hear and find mildly enjoyable every few years without remembering that I’d ever heard it before. It kept seeming as if it were about to turn darker and more absorbing, like one of the more exciting Rachmaninoff pieces it kept being vaguely reminiscent of, but it never quite got there, despite the dedicated efforts of Karabits and the crew.