Tous le Park Avenue cabbed down to the DiMenna Center at the cocktail hour last Saturday for a very unusual concert of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony was offering a chance to sit check by jowl with the performers, a rare immersion whose goal, as maestro David Bernard explained, was to give non-musicians an experience similar to that of the performer, and perhaps lure them into the concert hall again.
Before taking our seats, we were all asked if we’d been to a concert in the last month (in which case we received a blue bracelet), in the last year (yellow bracelet), or not in the last year (red), which we later had a chance to demonstrate with a show of hands. The color coding had me wonder if we would indeed be getting cocktails out of the bargain.
Park Avenue has gotten its share of sticks and stones, but this was a more homespun crowd. The family and friends of people who practice violin in their living rooms, who know what a gift it is to make music, and who make space in their lives for it. One imagines that these people are also likely to attend that other orchestra on the west side, make concert-going a family habit, and maybe play roles as donors. Would that all of Park Avenue were so.
And what better repertoire for a bunch of music lovers to dig into! Beethoven’s Fifth is a joy for anyone to listen to and a feast to play. With a running time of less than 40 minutes, I imagined that while this might be a short program, it was just the right length for my 3-year-old. Unfortunately, it became apparent that discussion would be rounding out the evening. More ominously, the discussion would come from the audience. The problem, as the event demonstrated, is that using words to describe music that does not have words is incredibly hard.
The conductor explained that we would be hearing one movement at a time, with discussion in between. I liken the experience to viewing a painting one quadrant at a time, with the rest blacked out. This piece in particular is best experienced in one sweep, the graceful second movement like the recovering sobs from the bleak crying fit of the first. But the audience was attentive and participated gamely.
The orchestra played the first movement, after which we applauded and staff members with microphones appeared. Maestro first asked listeners to describe what they saw, and then what they heard. We repeated a similar routine after the second movement, and after the piece’s conclusion.
The resulting discussion registered the audience’s enthusiasm, but perhaps was unsupportive of the event’s goals of demystifying music to non-musicians. Listeners enthused that they could see the passion in the player’s faces, and that they liked to watch the conductor’s face. In a comment that drew raucous applause, one woman said that by sitting next to the viola section, she finally had a better understanding of their role. A man said that as he was “watching the music,” and the thousands of notes and parts that come together, he marveled at the genius of Beethoven, concluding that it “makes me feel stupid.”
And there’s the difficulty in talking about music. Music transcends words to begin with, and when we try to put it into words, we fail, and are keenly aware of our shortcomings. Only one person, a child, attempted to encapsulate what the music actually sounded like, and how it touched him. To murmurs from the crowd, he described the second movement as “joyful,” and the grand march as something that might be played in an entrance to a ball. It is far more difficult for adults to make this kind of imaginative and vulnerable statement. Instead, we go back to glorifying the music and the masters, which just puts it all back on a pedestal.
As for the playing itself, it couldn’t be said that inserting more bodies between musicians made for an improved performance. There were four full rows of audience between the strings and the winds, and more wedges between each string section and the winds and brass. It must attest to the kind of following that PACS enjoys, but it made for some ragged ensemble. The winds and brass had the raucous unruliness that lent a welcome bit of an historically informed sound to the section. The strings were solid, but I wished they would have sank their teeth into this music more. Maestro Bernard’s capable conducting (without a score) could be summed up in one word, at least from our vantage point: smiley.
To me, the experiment argued in favor of listening to a concert with the orchestra in front of you. I enjoyed hearing the play of octaves in the winds in the second movement, but I missed hearing a more broadly unified sound, and some details are better left unheard. For example, I love the triumphant piccolo line, and but that instrument just sounds better from a distance.
Nonetheless, the concert had many merits that should be developed and repeated. Whether by omission or intention, no programs were distributed. Without the prop of something to read, the audience was forced to listen and to watch. That alone was ingenious, and something to be considered for any group that wants to command attention from its listeners.
The idea for discussion would have been improved with some more detailed questions to guide responses. Perhaps: What adjectives would you use to describe what you just heard? What were your emotions as you listened? How do you feel differently now, compared to before the music started? Since we were all wearing bracelets identifying our concert-going habits, why not match dedicated audience members with the newbies? With the right kind of ice-breakers, (What sort of music do you like? What keeps you from the concert hall?) it could be a sort of classical music speed-dating, perhaps encouraging some new friendships or company for the next performance. They could even offer a discount to red-bracelet wearers who bought tickets to the next concert.
Seating in the orchestra would also be ideal as a children’s concert, and a welcome alternative to young people’s concerts that involve far too much narrating and visual distractions. What better way for families to get offline and spend time with each other, with the added excitement of being immersed in the ensemble itself.
Kudos to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony for inviting listeners behind the fourth wall. This ensemble has some big ambitions, and many credits to its 15+ years of performing. With this kind of courage and inventiveness, we can only be curious as to what’s next.