Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wrong Answer

The Baltimore Symphony @ The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD
Friday, February 20, 2009

Marin Alsop: conductor

Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A Major
Camille Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, opus 78 ("Organ")

The Unanswered Question
was composed as "A Contemplation of a Serious Matter" (the title Ives originally gave this work). Serious contemplation was missing in the aurally crippling liberties exercised by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Friday's performance, and botched attempt to re-work this quietly insistent piece into a spatial construct, offered a poor answer that undermined the serious sincerity behind one of the twentieth century's great sonic portraits.

Composed for the three independent units of strings, flute quartet and solo trumpet, the Ivesian signature of giving each unit its own tempo and key is intended to give the piece a feeling of a collage. The strings maintain a steady, tonal presence over which the trumpet poses its "question" while the flutes attempt to answer with increasingly atonal turns. It's an impressive work. The solo trumpet part is played off stage, adding an element of theater and space that gives its "question" unusual transcendence.

The Baltimore Symphony chose to have the strings perform off stage as well. Further separating the compositionally distinct units and completely undermining the collage, balance and intent of this piece. Visually having Marin Alsop conducting upon a large stage populated by four flutes and an army of empty chairs was bad theater. Having the trumpet part sounding unseen from different parts around the space was bad theater. Rendering the string part nearly inaudible exposed the Achilles Heel of the Baltimore Symphony: its insufferably unsophisticated audience. Much of this crowd clearly had no idea that the stings were playing at all as its subtle presence was just beyond their ability to hear it.

On most occasions, I am willing to tolerate the mindless chatter uttered during performances along with the inevitable intrusion of ring-tones and unearthly amounts of phlegm being coughed up. But if the decision is made to dissect and obliterate a great work into deep pool of uncomfortable silence then there needs to be more effort on the part of the BSO to address this long-standing and predictable problem. Most venues address the cell phone problem up front with a simple announcement prior to a performance. This is a common courtesy in this day and age that the Meyerhoff has yet to catch up on. Individuals who allow their phones to ring and ring and ring repeatedly (a common occurance at the Meyerhoff) should be removed. I would even encourage a level of self enforcement within the audience toward shutting down phones and chatter during a performance. We wouldn't tolerate individuals spraying grafitti upon paitings displayed at the Smithsonian. Why endure the moral equivalent at the concert hall?

But most of all, given the wealth of compositions that are intentially and sucessfully spatial (i.e. the outstanding works of Henry Brant), there is no reason to remake The Unanswered Question into something that it is not. Adding more theater is not the same as good theater. Interpreting the off-stage trumpet call as "good gimmick" should not invite "more gimmick."

The syrupy, sticky sweetness of Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A Major was a bit much to take in the wake of botched Ives. Especially given the thick irony of programming Mozart after Ives given the well documented low opinion Ives held of Mozart's "overly pretty" aesthetic.

Saint-Saëns "Organ" symphony was a large scale, bombastic crowd pleaser. I had difficulty warming up to it. But I was there for the Ives.

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