A Viennese woodpecker

I took advantage of my comp tickets and went to the BPO concert tonight. The program included Beethoven’s 5th, which is pretty great. When I sat down and heard the instruments tune, I almost cried. The tuning-up period is really my favorite part of a concert, unless the music is just really phenomenal and well-played. It reminds me of Ulysses and my past. I thought of how although I’ve been to many operas since 2002, I haven’t been to many orchestral concerts (if any?)… i.e. I haven’t been to a concert like that since I was dating Aaron. Aaron and I didn’t go to the BPO– cheaper to go to concerts at Slee Hall at UB– plus Aaron didn’t like the conductor of the BPO’s style or the traditionalist programming. But anyway, we used to go to concerts a lot, and I haven’t been much since then. Hearing live music is really so much more interesting than hearing a recording. The performance value– I mean, the athleticism required of the players– is so fun to watch, and in a good hall the acoustics can be amazing, can add a whole new dimension to the work. Of course, you have to deal with the conductor’s interpretation of a piece which can sometimes be really annoying (generally, if they take it too slow it’s annoying) and with the audience’s coughs and other disturbances. But still.

I didn’t think the conductor was bad at all– Aaron thought she was too much of a performer (for the audience), too inexact (for the players) but I didn’t find that to be the case– I actually thought she was pretty good. Not Leonard Bernstein or something, but good, a lot better than the conductor that used to work at Slee, who was basically a human metronome. The BPO conductor tried to rouse the players, but the whole bass section seemed dead for most of the piece, with the exception of a moment in the third movement. I thought her energy was good. The players themselves seemed bored. The piece is so good that it’s hard for me to understand how they could be bored. Isn’t playing a piece again and again like rereading a book, to some extent? How many times have I reread passages of Mrs. Dalloway, and I still get excited by it when I reread the thing again? If I were to read it to people who’d never heard it before I would certainly feel even more excited.

The concert hall is well-designed and the acoustics are very good, better than at Slee (for various reasons, some of which could be corrected). (The history of the concert hall as told by Wikipedia is really interesting.)

The other disturbing part of the concert, besides that some of the players seemed bored, was that much of the audience was old. The vast majority of the heads in front of me were hoary. I saw a few teenagers and a couple of couples in their 30s, but otherwise the young folks were in their 50s and most people were probably over 65. I found this really weird, since most of the concert goers at Slee Hall (which is about 20 min. away) are under 50 and in Vienna there were people from every demographic you could think of. I think this results from many things– the decline of arts education in the U.S., the downtown location of the BPO’s hall (i.e. it’s not up by UB’s campus), the culture at the BPO which seems very Lawrence Welk-ish– but the main thing, I think, is the price of tickets. For students, a ticket at Slee is $5 (a non-student ticket is $9). At the Vienna Opera, a stehplatz is 2 Euros. If you’re a child or senior you can get reduced tickets to the BPO, but there’s nothing like the student rush tickets at Lincoln Center or stehplatz, where you can get in at the last minute for a drastically reduced price. The concert wasn’t sold out– I think as long as your concerts aren’t selling out you can certainly take the gamble and sell student tickets at a huge discount, especially if you’re located within a mile of two universities! It’s not much a gamble, either, of course– since students grow up, get jobs, and become patrons if they’re groomed properly.

… Something the program notes pointed out (but which is not included in the Wikipedia description of the 5th Symphony) is Beethoven derived the well-known first four note (da-da-da-dum) from the peck pattern of a yellow-hammer he heard in a park in Vienna. The piece struck me as very Viennese– it felt like Vienna, somehow– but this tidbit endeared the piece to me even more, because at the time of writing Beethoven was beginning to go deaf. The sound of the four notes has been described as “fate knocking at the door,” which is interesting because of the social conditions at the time of writing and Beethoven’s increasing deafness, but the fact that the rhythm was actually determined by a woodpecker makes that analogy (to Fate) even more emotive. Imagine how special it is for you to walk through a park and hear birdsong, and then imagine how much more important that is for a composer (especially a German Romantic composer) who is inspired by the songs of Nature. Perhaps a woodpecker’s knock, with its heavier pitch and vibration, would have been one of the final bird-calls Beethoven could distinguish.

About Jessica Smith

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