17 July 2012

Beethoven waves us off

Running in place trying to keep up though always falling behind as usual, I might as well start with the final concert I heard in the San Francisco Symphony's centennial season and work backwards through some symphonic nights. . . .

My ticket for the big season finale was for the Thursday performance, so my original plan was to spend the time after work and before the concert at the Asian Art Museum taking a closer look at the Phantoms of Asia show. Unfortunately for me, that Thursday turned out to be one of the museum's silly and annoying monthly party nights, though I guess it was fortunate I found out beforehand so I could give the museum a very wide berth, since this particular party featured (1) "litquake," (2) Trannyshack, (3) some tattoo thing, and (4) a DJ. Any one of those four elements would have sent me screaming into the dark night, but the combination of all four promised to fill the museum with enough smug self-regard and general hipster-douchebag-asshattery to reach suffocatingly toxic levels. In fact the slightest event - a carelessly dropped name, the fizz when some inked hackjob popped open his ironic Pabst Blue Ribbon - could easily react with some dragonish drag queen's acid "Oh honey" or the shrill relentless thumping of trendoid world music to trigger an implosion in the building that would bring it crashing down (as Samson brought the temple crashing down on the heads of the Philistines), with nothing surviving in the wreck except perhaps some fragment of an unobserved impassive Buddha, his hand raised in ambiguous blessing, his lips curved in an enigmatic smile.

So anyway the need to avoid the Asian Art Museum meant I had to rearrange my plans for the hours before the start of the concert. I did go to the SF Museum of Modern Art for a while, even though I had already been there earlier that day during my lunch hour. I don't like the cafeteria there, so I left after about an hour and walked up Market Street to Pearl's Deluxe Burgers, which I had never been to before and which is in the area of Market Street that the city has been desperately trying to gentrify for years. They're not quite there yet. My food was perfectly acceptable but the tables were surprisingly grimy and the generic loud music was irritating though not unexpected. A couple of street people talked loudly in the back, their possession-stuffed handcarts leaning against their table. Glassy-eyed and angry-looking folks, some street people, some office workers, floated by right outside the window. My dinner started to sit heavily in my stomach. I thought despondently of the healthier, tastier, and less expensive dinner I would have had at the Asian. I glumly wondered if I should bother renewing my museum membership. The best time for working people to visit there is Thursday evening, but they don't even have the late hours during the winter months (prime concert-attending season) and the rest of the year they frequently sabotage Thursday nights with their attempts to turn themselves into a ghastly third-rate nightclub, something I can easily get elsewhere were I so minded, unlike the chance to look at Asian art, which I can only get there. It's part of a sad trend among cultural institutions to throw away what they're actually good for in favor of interchangeable, irritating parties aimed at people who aren't really much interested in art. I'm not sure I'm really getting value from my membership.

Eventually I headed out into the drifting crowds, back down Market Street to Davies Hall, with hamburger, onion rings, and milkshake heavy in my stomach, still with well over an hour before the concert was to start, and nothing much to do. The big item on the program was the Beethoven 9, one of those pieces whose very greatness has led to a sort of cynical ennui among concert-goers who roll their eyes at riding such a familiar warhorse. But for me at least it's not something I've heard live that often (recordings are something else). In fact the only other time I remember hearing it live was for the centennial of the Boston Symphony, in a big free public concert on Boston Common. The park was mobbed, of course, and I ended up stuck next to a woman who talked loudly during the entire performance. She could not restrain her laughter and gleeful horror at the terrible gaucherie of those who applauded between movements. "Talk about the pot calling the kettle black," muttered a man next to me, so I was not the only victim of her presence who noted the irony in her mocking disapproval of bad concert behavior.

I was quite excited to hear this symphony live, perched as it is on the summit of several traditions, like some fantastical composite beast, lashing its strange choral tail toward heaven. The first part of the program was two short pieces by Ligeti and Schoenberg, both of whom I love, and both performed by the Symphony's superb chorus. I thought the pieces were very well chosen to complement the Beethoven: Ligeti's Lux aeterna, using the ancient words from the requiem mass, and Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, mixing an eyewitness account from the Holocaust with the ancient prayer Shema Yisroel, look both backward and forward, combining daring musical invention with humanity's oldest and most basic questions about justice and meaning in the universe; they memorialize yet also move us forward: perfect accompaniments to Beethoven's final symphony.

There I was in my front row center seat, excited about the program, and pleased to see that the program-rustlers who usually sit next to me for this subscription series were nowhere in sight, and then, right before the lights dimmed, an incredibly enormous man sinks slowly into the seat on my left, and even though there is a double armrest on my right I am pinned to the far side of my seat by this meat-mountain and his swollen fleshbag limbs. Since I am very careful about not imposing on the space of others I felt equally constricted on my right side, since I'm pushed all the way over there, though the little old woman sitting on my right seemed cheerfully oblivious, humming a bit and tapping along to the more sombre moments in the Schoenberg and the Beethoven. Now instead of being a bit peeved that the first half is so short I am deeply grateful, since I cannot move. The Ligeti is dense yet ethereal. I think that Shuler Hensley's narration in the Schoenberg is not the way I would have done it - it's maybe a bit too obviously dramatic - but that's how Schoenberg wrote it, and the ultimate effect is very powerful, and I'm having trouble breathing since I don't even have room to cross my arms over my chest, my usual space-saving expedient, because I am so crammed into this seat by the vast implacable imperturbable wall of flesh beside me.

During intermission I look around and there are no empty seats, so I have no choice if I want to hear the Beethoven but to sit back down in what is available of the seat I paid for. Again, I can't move; I can't even put both arms by my sides because there's no room. I have to let my right arm hang down onto my lap, with my left hand holding on somewhere near my bicep to keep my left arm out of my neighbor's way, and I can't move from that position. I realize at one point that my eyeglasses have become smeared (most likely by my eyelashes) but I can't move my arms well enough to wipe them off. I really hate it when my glasses aren't clean. I'm feeling very claustrophobic, pinned in by a solid wall of inert flesh, seeing the orchestra through a misty smudge on my lenses. I hear the music as in a dream. I have an impression of a very fine performance of the familiar strains. The soloists (Erin Wall, Kendall Gladen, William Burden, and Nathan Berg), are all very fine, but long before Joy, the daughter of Elysium, spread her soft wings I could feel my entire left side slowly but surely going completely numb.

I have sat through more physically excruciating concerts at Davies Hall than anywhere else I've ever been. And it's not like Bayreuth, where you suffer on those hard seats but the sound is incomparable. You will not be compensated for your steerage-quality seating by beauty of either sound or surroundings. I just don't know what it is about that place (besides poor design). Maybe I just have bad luck there? Sometimes you'll read someone (usually someone associated with the Symphony) talking about what a wonderful hall it is, and I am befuddled and bemused and touched and saddened.

I had the feeling that the symphony was flashing before me the way a vast golden sun might finally flash setting on a sparkling green sea in a drowning man's last vision, only I was being drowned in enclosing suffocating waves of encroaching human flesh. The last note of the music had barely sounded when the man behind me immediately leaned forward and loudly screamed bravi! right in my ear. (I'll give him credit, though: he only kicked the back of my seat a couple of times. At least the kicks indicated I hadn't lost all feeling back there.) I leaned forward in my turn and suddenly realized I could take advantage of the tumultuous applause to jump to my feet, which I promptly did, joining the sincere ovation with special gratitude for my release. But I still felt so clamped in and claustrophobic that I couldn't even stand there applauding; usually I'm one of the last to leave the hall but I was so anxious for movement that as soon as Michael Tilson Thomas and the soloists left the stage I bolted to the side aisle and practically ran to the back of the house before the aisles were crammed with the lumbering herds and I was trapped again. I think only once before in my whole concert-going life have I left before the house-lights were turned up, and that was after a very long opera when I would otherwise have missed the last train. So I felt troubled by fleeing but also compelled to escape.

The Symphony was recording the performances for a future CD release, so perhaps I'll get to hear the performance under less grueling conditions, though given the several loud coughs during the quietest sections I'm not sure they'll use the performance I heard. And the Symphony continues its inexplicable policy of not using surtitles for the vocal parts, so of course during the Ode to Joy there was much rustling of programs among those who could actually use their arms.

And here's my little O Henry ending: the train home was a long time coming, but at least it was a full-length train. I took my seat in the first car, grateful to have no one beside me, but after two stops the entire train filled up with people returning from the Giants game, so there was no place to move to, and another, even fatter, man plopped down next to me, pinning me into my seat. Once I managed to get off the train even the empty nighttime sidewalks seemed barely enough restorative space, and I longed to be alone on an endless silent prairie under the canopy of stars that Schiller and Beethoven had been trying to point out to us.


Lisa Hirsch said...

This is the kind of situation where you might consult an usher during the intermission. They have seen these issues and may have a solution.

Civic Center said...

"I think only once before in my whole concert-going life have I left before the house-lights were turned up, and that was after a very long opera when I would otherwise have missed the last train."

We certainly are two very different kinds of birds. I have been walking out of performances most of my life. A bad or mediocre live performance can be excruciating for me, and is a reminder of the worst and most boring parts of church endured as a child. I LOVE walking out of shows simply because I can, which is why I'm very careful about asking for press tickets to anything I am doubtful about. If I'd been going through your particular Davies Hall experience, I'd certainly not have stuck it out through a very long symphony. You're paying for your pleasure, man. Feel free to take it and/or leave it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Based on my fairly consistent experience in Davies, I doubt there is an adequate solution. What are they going to do, throw the fat guy out? Why should I have to move (to what is most likely another terrible seat, or one that's terrible in a different way) because of someone else?

Yeah, I'm paying for my pleasure, and my pleasure was to hear Beethoven. There was nothing wrong with the performance, it was the terrible design of that awful hall, and my bad luck. But I almost always feel crammed in there unless there's an empty seat beside me. Why should I lose my time and money because Davies is a terrible hall?

Lisa Hirsch said...

In this situation, you had a choice between two different types of miserable: a worse seat or being crunched in your chosen seat.

I've mentioned before that seat sizes vary all over Davies: we were explicitly told at one point that the seats in the 2nd tier are larger than those in the orchestra. And I know that seats in the orchestra vary somewhat in size.

You might consider trying out a range of seats when you get there early and see which seem more comfortable to you. I know you want to be in the front row, but having sat all over the orchestra in the last year, I can safely say that the sound is pretty good just about everywhere I sat. I would suggest trying rows H through T.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Just to clarify: I have frequently moved to different seats in Davies if there was a problem with my first seat and there was a better one available near me. As I stated in my entry, there were no empty seats anywhere near me. These were the last concerts of the centennial season and so the hall was packed.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The situation was the same on Saturday night when I attended. If there was a seat free anywhere, the ushers could have found out.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I know people think I only sit in the front row, but I have sat all over that hall, and this same problem happens all over. I have sat in the rows you recommend, and have had the same cramped experience. The experience I described here was worse than usual, but was by no means unusual.

And please note that those seats you recommend are significantly more expensive than the first few rows.

Your faith in the ushers is touching. The ones I come across are sweet but often don't even know the hall set-up as well as I do. I could have gone to the box office, I suppose, and tried to switch tickets, which is aggravating and potentially expensive, but since I didn't see any seats available anyway, I have to wonder what the point would have been, unless I wanted to be crammed in some corner somewhere in order to accommodate someone who should have bought himself two seats to start with. Sometimes sucky things just happen and that's that. They just seem to happen in Davies more often than anywhere else. When it comes down to choosing between different types of misery, I might as well save my money and my time and spare myself the misery and listen to music at home.

Shushu said...

I'd like to request a haiku with the middle line of "hipster-douchebag-asshatt'ry." Or I'd like to open a shop with said name.

Your comments about the Asian Art Museum remind me of the debate here over the fate and faults of the Corcoran Art Gallery. Apparently, it's one of the only private museums in DC (unlike Phillips, let's say) that hasn't been able to sustain interest, members, or donations. (I did just join again to spend some quiet time with Diebenkorn, though.)

Patrick J. Vaz said...

A few years ago I did write a haiku about hipster hats. Does that count? I'm afraid my scrupulous syllable counts would not allow for the elision.

Very interesting about the Corcoran. You know, all the times I've been to DC, I think I've only been there once, maybe twice. I haven't been to the Phillips that often either but it's always in my mind as a possible destination. For me it's just a matter of being more interested in what other DC museums have compared to the Corcoran (which is mostly 19th century American art? but it couldn't be just that if you're seeing Diebenkorn there). OK, I guess I will check it out again next time I'm in DC. When I can afford to travel again.

I know the Asian has had some serious financial problems, but then so have we all, and though it is the trend I think making the galleries inhospitable to people who actually want (as you put it) quiet time with art is really the wrong direction to go in.