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The mezzo-soprano was in the middle of spinning the second phrase of "La flûte de Pan"…

Pour le jour de Hyacinthies,
Il m’a donné une…

…when the gentleman turned to his female companion and whispered something along the lines of "Oh, she sings well, no?  And in French too!"  The requisite head nods of agreement and self-confirmation soon followed.  I was seated in the second row of the small hall, and this couple was seated in front of me… In the front row.  During the pause before "La chevelure", the woman picked up her program, then pointed out where the next sets of texts and translations started…

Il m’a dit: "Cette nui, j’ai rêve."

Another set of head nods accompanied by some still-audible murmurings of the English translations, which I then realize were colored with a Germanic accent.

The whispering, the head nodding and program shuffling continued throughout Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, and I eventually realized that I was not alone in my irritation at the apparent lack of manners on display.  Other audience members in the immediate vicinity started to look over at them too.  At one point, I was about to put my hand on the shoulder of the gentleman as a way of silently saying, "Please, could you be more respectful of the Artists… Who just happen to be performing just six feet away from you!?"  However, I was afraid any sort of gentle physical contact would have prompted an ever more audible and demonstrative response, so I refrained.

After "Le tombeau des naïades" came to a close, there were a few moments of silence followed by a well-deserved and freely offered round of applause. As the applause died down, I was able to confirm that the couple sitting in front of me were indeed German – well, perhaps even Austrian.  The woman then turned around looking for some friends who were seated a couple of rows back, motioning them to come join her in the front row since the seats next to her remained unoccupied.  Apparently, her friends wished to stay put for the time being which resulted in the woman making even larger gestures in exasperation.  All I could think to myself was, "Good. They’re not to join her. That would just give her more people to talk to during the recital."

The house lights dimmed once again, the door stage left opened, and the Artists walked back onto the stage.  Of course, this only prompted the couple in front of me to re-shuffle and re-open their programs to the texts of the Schumann, followed by more audible whispering and head-nodding.  As the pianist played those first two pensive quarter notes chords, they were still whispering, talking to each other.  I just had to take action.  While gently placing my hand on the man’s right shoulder, I whispered….

"Silence, s’il vous plait."

Why I suddenly started uttering in French is beyond me, and I even ended up laughing at myself, to myself – inaudibly! – for a split second.  However, my very gentle protestation seemed to do the trick. Silence.

Seit ich ihn gesehen, glaub’ ich blind zu sein;
Wo ich hin nur blicke, seh’ ich ihn allein;
Wie im wachen Traume schwebt sein Bild mir vor,
Taucht aus tiefstem Dunkel heller, heller nur empor.

Sadly, halfway through "Du Ring am meinem Finger", the women raised her program up to eye level, pointed to something, and then nudged her companion to look at what she was looking at: the pianist’s program biography.  And, yes, during the brief piano postlude that completes Frauenliebe und -Leben, they started conferring with each other again, long before the pianist extinguished the ringing of the final notes by releasing the damper pedal.  Intermission.

As I re-setttled myself in my seat, I noticed that the woman’s friends had gone ahead and joined her in the front row for the second half of the program.  What is the German for "Please, be quiet"? Fortunately, the other couple seemed to be on their better behavior. Truth be told, it seemed that the husband did not really want to be there, and he remained slouched – and silent! – in his seat throughout the Harbison and de Falla song cycles.  The woman and her companion also seemed to be a bit more settled during the second half, although, I could tell they were questioning exactly what an "aerial" was during "Ballad for Billie I" – more finger-pointing and whispering.  Then there was the rhythmic head-nodding and hair-bouncing during the more dance-inspired selections of the Siete canciones populares Españolas, "Jota" seemed particularly motion-inducing.  Even I will admit to air-playing along with the right and left hand patterns of the guitar-invoking accompaniments from time to time, but at least the pressing of my fingers against my jeans produced no sound unlike the slight jangle of the woman’s earrings or the scuffing of her blond curls against her companion’s nylon jacket…

Dicen que no nos queremos
Porque no nos ven hablar;
A tu corazón y al mio
Se lo pueden preguntar.

This was my second vocal recital in as many days.  The night before, I had attended Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recital in the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall.  This night’s recital was being held in the more intimate(!) Weill Recital Hall, and featured the mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, filling in for an indisposed Joseph Kaiser.  Song recitals hold a special place in my heart.  While I was in college, I discovered the true Joy and Beauty of the Human Voice, and I subsequently devoted a good chunk of my studies to Classical Art Song Literature as both an Accompanist and a Singer.  I accompanied voraciously.  There were a few times when I had up to 15 voice majors to play for during the end of semester juries.  -I still have the three-ring binders filled with all the Xerox copies of all of that repertoire! I even sang a few juries myself.  I was also blessed with a wonderful Song Literature teacher and departmental Vocal Coach who was more than happy to let me sit in on other singer’s coachings from time to time.

When I saw the program for Sasha Cooke’s recital, it was like seeing a couple of old friends.  I had studied the Debussy, Schumann and de Falla songs while I was in college.  (The Harbison cycle, "North and South" was written a couple of years after I had graduated.)  Although I was looking forward to hearing Liszt’s "Petrarcan Sonnets", and the selection of Rachmaninov songs on Joseph Kaiser’s originally scheduled program, I had heard the Liszt earlier this season, and the Siberian baritone had more than satisfied my Russian romance requirements for the time being. Being familiar with Ms. Cooke’s program allowed me to put my program and translations in my bag, and just sit back and enjoy the recital.  Just Watch and Listen. Alas, I found myself watching and listening to other things during the course of the recital.  -Thankfully, there were no errant cell-phone rings during Ms. Cooke’s recital, unlike the night before during Mr. Hvorostovsky’s concert – at least four times! – and always during the quieter sections!!!

Being a somewhat-former somewhat-performer myself, I really do try my best to be the Perfect Audience Member (PAM, for short).  I arrive at the hall early enough to get seated, and if I know I am sitting in the middle of the row, I will make sure to take my place early enough in order not to inconvenience the others in my row sitting to the side of me.  I dress appropriately.  -Although due to an oversight on my part – "Oh, the recital starts at 7:30, not 8:00!" – I was not able to run home in time to put on more presentable clothing, and I ended up feeling a bit self-conscious as I sat there in the second row in my half-zip fleece pullover.  I turn my cell-phone off – even "vibrations" can be heard. If needed, I keep my paper-wrapped Ricola’s in my hand ready to go at a moment’s notice. And if I’m not that familiar with the repertoire, I read the program notes and translations beforehand so that I can devote my full attention to the stage, and not have my head buried in the program reading along and cross-referencing the song text with the translations.

As I sat there listening to and watching the Artists and my fellow Audience members, I began to wonder just why I was being distracted by the low murmurs and the shuffling of the programs? If I really was paying full attention to what was going on on stage, then I would not and should not have been distracted by anything else going on around me.  Right? Was I no longer the PAM I prided myself on being?  Had I suddenly become one of Them?

With vocal recitals, in particular, I find myself from time to time wanting to advise some of my fellow audience members to Look Up and Listen.  Stop reading along.  Stop trying to match up each German word with the corresponding English word.  The Singer is Singing.  Communicating.  Just let the Singer Communicate with You, to You.  A related annoyance occurs whenever I attend a piano recital where Ravel’s "Gaspard de la Nuit" is being played.  Inevitably, there will be people reading the texts and translations of the poems (if provided) that inspired the triptych, seemingly trying to match up the French and English(!) syllables with the piano figurations.  But again: Why do I notice such things?

After a bit of theorizing – and, boy, did I come up with some far-flung theories – the answer to that question suddenly became quite obvious.  If I was on that stage, I would want an audience filled with PAMs.  A bit narcissistic, yes, but not an unreasonable request.  Whether I was playing a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin ballade, or accompanying a singer or instrumentalist, I would want – and hope – the audience to Listen.  A Musician’s life has good a deal of isolation built into it.  A practice room can truly be the most "separate" place anyone can know, an inherent loneliness.  Before a piece of music – or even just a brief phrase of it – can be shared with others or just your teacher, it must be pored over, dissected and repeated many times over, and the only ears that ever hear it during that process are your own.  At times, it can seem like you are forcing yourself to listen to the music.  Or vice versa.  But then you reach that point where you want another set of ears to take in what you have been creating and re-creating.  Music is Sound, and Sound is meant to go through the air.  To borrow another analogy: If a pianist plays Chopin’s "Revolutionary" Etude, and there is no one in the audience to hear it…

I guess I should give my fellow audience members a break, or at least not allow myself to get so upset when such distractions occur.  I was already feeling slightly uncomfortable sitting in Weill Hall dressed in a more casual manner than I would have liked, but then to have them right in front of me – and right in front of the Artists – well…

As the encores started, something almost miraculous happened.   -I noticed this night before during Hvorostovsky’s recital too.  Yes, there were a few mutterings throughout the audience as the pianist began playing the introduction – "What piece is this?", "Ah, very nice!" – but once Ms. Cooke started singing…

Yeshjo f paljah beleyet snek,
A vody ush vesnoi shumjat,
Begut i budjat sonnyi brek,
Begut i bleshjut, i glasjat…

There was no translation to consult. There was no program to rustle. There were just two Artists on stage. Playing and Singing.  Sharing and Communicating. And for a few minutes – during Rachmaninov’s "Spring Waters" and the haunting aria from John Adams’ "Doctor Atomic" – the hall was filled with PAMs.  Listening. Receiving. Remembering. Smiling.

And, yes, she sang very well. And in Russian too!

*I would be sorely remiss if I did not mention the fine pianists who performed along side these fine singers:  Ivari Ilja did the honors for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Pei-Yao Wang was Sasha Cooke’s musical partner.

April 2008
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