Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Invectivator and his Mom go to Carnegie

I heard a fantastic concert the other day that I probably would have missed if my friends and family weren’t around to make me leave the house. My Mom was visiting NY so because we couldn’t get tickets to the opera we decided to go to Carnegie Hall on Saturday night. I thought the program looked pretty decent even though I didn’t know too much about the ensemble performing it. But even if I didn’t have the excuse of taking my Mom to Carnegie (where she had never been before), a cellist friend of mine would have made sure I was there because he invited me out to the same show. He had been there the night before and was so pumped he wanted to go again to hear the same group in a different program. My eyebrows crawled up my forehead and I started getting excited that we might be about to hear something great. The pianist Andras Schiff has a curatorial role at Carnegie for a bunch of concerts. For two of these, he collaborated with Ivan Fischer and The Budapest Festival Orchestra performing all three Bartok Piano Concertos paired with some orchestral works of Bartok and Schubert. We had a great time. My Mom started crying as soon as she heard the first chord from the orchestra. My Mom’s a pretty big softy but being in Carnegie Hall will have that effect on you. It just sounds so good. Warm, clear, the crackle of energy passing through the mists of history. It lives up to the hype. It delivers. It makes a good orchestra sound great, and great orchestras shake your soul. We were there for the second of the two nights so we didn’t get the full impact, but I will jump at my next chance to hear Fischer and Budapest. Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic of The New York Times did get the full Monty and based on his review, he’ll be there for the rest of Schiff’s concerts as well. He probably doesn’t burst into tears anymore the way my Mom does when he listens to a concert at Carnegie but he is always willing to let you know when he loves something.

Here’s a link to the full review:

I enjoy Tommasini’s reviews. They’re always well written. Even when I disagree with him, he makes me consider his position. Sometimes his agenda peeks out from behind the curtain of a review, which is something I like in a critic. I mean why not? Does anyone seriously believe that critics or Supreme Court justices are impartial? Also I like the nice things he has said about my groups and me over the years. Yes, flattery even works on the Invectivator. Tommasini is a pianist, and a piano guy. So the bulk of his review focuses on Schiff’s interpretation of all three Bartok concertos over two nights. Fair enough. But something highly unusual happened that Tommasini missed.

“On Saturday night he gave an exhilarating account of the daunting Second Concerto, a performance that made the path-breaking challenges of the piano writing seem playable: oscillating clusters, scurrying runs of double thirds, fanfarelike themes in wide chords so packed with notes that many fingers must do double duty.

Bartok left the strings out of the brittle, incisive first movement. But we enter another world in the second movement, which begins with a muted, austere chorale for strings that becomes a backdrop for the piano’s questioning, eerie melodic phrases. This effect was beautifully realized by Mr. Schiff and the sensitive, mellow strings of the orchestra.”

The second movement was a particular highlight of orchestral playing. An unbelievably soft and melancholic sound came out of the strings. But in the midst of all this, Mr. Schiff turned to the audience and shushed us. That’s right, he put his fingers to his lips and let us know in no uncertain terms that we were a bunch of boors who couldn’t control our coughing and we were getting in the way of their interpretation of a masterpiece. I have never been shushed by a soloist before. It really doesn’t happen all that often. I can say that the vibe in the room completely changed after that. People got tense. Perhaps they started feeling like they didn’t know how to act at a concert. My cellist friend remarked afterwards that he thought the coughing got louder after the shushing. Listen, it was a cold night in NYC. It’s a big, resonant space. People are going to cough, and it’s going to be a little distracting. But that’s the price we pay for leaving the house. It’s the trade-off for the feeling of electricity that a large room full of people generates. If you want absolute silence you can sit on your couch and listen to it on your stereo or if you have the means, pay Schiff to come over and play for you. So for me personally, I was a little offended by Schiff’s shushing and it took me right out of the magical performance he was in the middle of. All sorts of crazy thoughts started rushing through my head “Is he an asshole? Is he so not involved in his own performance that he can take a second out to tell the audience to shut up? Are we really that loud?” Etc. I know it caused a sensation because I overheard several conversations at intermission about it. No mention from Tommasini. Not enough space? Wasn’t offended? Likes being shushed? Wishes he could shush everybody himself? I think he missed an opportunity to capture the feeling of an event, and to talk about classical concert going conventions.

 "On Friday Mr. Fischer and the orchestra offered a joyous account of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, a youthful Mozartean work. Mr. Fischer chose an unusual placement of instruments, with pairs of cellos and the four basses positioned among the other strings and the woodwinds. This arrangement compelled the musicians to listen closely to one another and perform the score as if it were a big piece of chamber music.

On Saturday he led a fresh, rhythmically vivid account of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, his most ambitious symphonic work, lasting nearly an hour. The woodwinds were placed in the first row of instruments. So, as in the Fifth Symphony, this performance had the spontaneity and interplay of chamber music. One of the most attentive listeners in the audience was Mr. Schiff, who now and then could not help making conducting gestures as he watched Mr. Fischer, his longtime friend and colleague."

So in these two paragraphs Tommasini touches on what was for me the most fascinating part of the concerts. Fischer and his players did some radical things with the set-up of the orchestra. Every piece had a different set-up. Again, this is something you almost never see or ear. It’s a pain to do it. Orchestral players are generally against it. It requires an open mind and a willing stage crew, both of which are hard to find. I felt that it paid off in some ways, and detracted in others. I was happy they did it, and we couldn’t stop talking about it after. But Tommasini presents it as merely “unusual” and then he makes an assumption about how it “compelled the musicians to listen closely to one another and perform the score as if it were a big piece of chamber music”.
Sigh. Really? Do you think they don’t listen to each other closely when they don’t sit in an unusual formation? He could have written “It gave the impression that they were listening even more closely to one another than usual, as if it were a big piece of chamber music.”
Personally I think that is always the goal of an orchestral concert, to make it more intimate, more personal, to connect with other players and sections across a massive stage no matter where I’m sitting. It’s a throwaway sentence that assumes a mindset of the performers so that he can describe an aspect of the performance without taking up too much space. Instead I wish he had dug in and looked at the benefits and drawbacks of orchestral seating conventions and their impact on the audience. A typical, thoughtful review from Anthony Tommasini, but because he makes popping those out look easy, he’s got me hungering for a deeper discussion of what it means to go to a concert on a cold night in New York City in 2011.


  1. "the crackle of energy passing through the mists of history"

    Fantastic image. Fantastic post.

  2. Dear Invectivator,
    It's a pleasure to read such thoughtful impressions of concerts and their reviewers. Keep it up!
    That said, I want to put in my two cents in Tommasini's defense. As a (recently) former classical music critic at a metropolitan daily, who had to face a 10:45 pm deadline and a 350-word limit, finding those quick, time- and space-saving phrases was essential to making an overnight review possible.
    How would you have that "deeper discussion"? Would it be over a late-night latte, or some sort of online forum?