TAFTO 2006 Contribution: Pete Matthews

TAFTO wouldn’t be complete without a contribution from a “knowledgeable nonprofessional classical music activist” and this year that role is being filled by Pete Matthews. Pete’s contribution chronicles his trials and tribulations with regard to hauling his friends off to classical music concerts. That’s right; you’re going to get to read about several real life experiences of TAFTO in action. If you have ever invited an uninitiated friend to a concert you will relate to some of Pete’s rougher experiences. Nevertheless, those of you out there still building up the courage to invite a friend, you can take stock in the fact that Pete’s narrative is filled with a great deal of encouraging advice. ~ Drew McManus

I have spent a good portion of my young adulthood coercing friends (“dragging” is too strong a term, “asking” not strong enough) into joining me at concerts, with mixed results. I imagine they accept my invitation because they know it’s important to me, or because they’re looking for an elegant night out, or because they’re curious about this unfamiliar art form they encounter every week in the Sunday Times, in between the theater and gallery listings.

Recently, I had the opportunity to invite my friend Francine to a series of concerts at various venues around New York. Francine would seem predisposed to being a regular concertgoer: she’s in her mid-30’s, works at the Guggenheim, and attends live music and theater events at least once a week. Still, she told me she hadn’t been to a concert in 20 years, despite the fact that she lived in San Francisco for 11 years and has lived here for nine months.

“It was just never really something I thought about doing,” she told me. “It’s not something any of my friends have been into.”

Following is a recap of our experience, all of which took place in the past month. (Note: the second concert was technically not orchestral, but I’m hoping you’ll make an exception.)

Concert 1:
New York Philharmonic “Hear and Now” concert, Avery Fisher Hall, 3/1/06

The Philharmonic introduced this new series this season, consisting of a live performance of a single contemporary composition, preceded by commentary from composer Steven Stucky and an interview with the composer of the evening’s work. According to the Philharmonic’s website: “Each composer will tell you the story behind the music and what to listen for – enhancing your enjoyment of their piece.”

I thought this would make for a good, relatively brief introduction to the concert experience (not to mention inexpensive: tickets were only $20 for prime orchestra, or $10 for the balcony.) Unfortunately, it was a 6:30 curtain, so instead of stopping to get a drink beforehand, we both had to rush straight from work, getting to our seats just in time.

The work on the program was the world premiere of John Harbison’s Milosz Songs, sung by Dawn Upshaw. We had great seats in the eighth row center, where we were surrounded by a mix of students and professionals. (The hall was less than half full.)

We both found Stucky to be an engaging and accessible presenter, but Harbison came off sounding a bit stiff, despite interspersing his comments with live musical examples. There was also video of Milosz himself (who died in 2004) reading two of the poems from the piece.

The full performance by Upshaw and the Philharmonic (conducted by Robert Spano), which lasted half an hour, was certainly impressive, and Francine showed her appreciation with warm applause. Yet on the walk to the 1 train, I could sense that the music had somehow failed to engage her.

“So,” I asked, “what did you think?”

“Well, I thought the poetry was beautiful, but the music just didn’t work for me,” she said. “I guess I’m just not familiar enough with it.”

Concert 2:
Skampa String Quartet, Washington Irving High School, 3/25/06

After a leisurely sushi dinner across the street, Francine and I got to Washington Irving High School (on the corner of 16th and Irving, one block east of Union Square) around 7:30 for the final subscription concert of the Peoples’ Symphony Chamber Series (http://www.pscny.org/). The Peoples’ Symphony is a venerable New York institution, which since 1900 has offered the lowest admission prices of any major concert series in the country: $9.00 for single concerts, or $28 for a six concert subscription. The concerts draw a mixed but mostly older crowd, most of who are on a fixed income and can’t afford regular concert prices.

Since 1913, the concerts have been held in Washington Irving High School’s auditorium: a hall with better-than-you-might-think acoustics, but showing its age with chipped paint and tarnished brass fixtures. All the seats are unreserved, and the best ones fill up well before concert time. (Many have colorful graffiti written on the backs by bored students.)

Most remarkable about the concerts are that they regularly feature some of the most renowned chamber groups in the world, which this season included the Beaux Arts Trio and the Juilliard, Guarneri and Takács String Quartets. They all perform for far less than their usual fee, often playing the same program they’ll perform at Carnegie or Lincoln Center later in the week.

On the night we went, we heard the Škampa String Quartet, a 17 year old group from Prague, in a program featuring an early Mozart quartet, Beethoven’s first “Rasumovsky” quartet, and Mozart’s late String Quintet. The musicians performed standing, and wore black shirts untucked from their black pants. Two of them had wild black hair and beards, making them look every inch the Bohemians they are.

The crowd responded enthusiastically to each piece – particularly the Beethoven, during which I could see dozens of heads bobbing in unison to the driven, often fiery playing. You couldn’t help but be impressed: these people weren’t there to be seen. They were there simply because they love music.

“Wow, I really liked that!” Francine told me afterwards. “I thought it was much more personal and intimate than the Philharmonic concert.” She even said she’d tell some of her friends about it, and encourage them all to get subscriptions next season.

“I mean, why not?” she said. “It’s only $28!”

Concert 3:
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, 4/1/06

On paper, I felt that this concert had the most promise of the three: a double bill of works for chorus and orchestra, including John Adams’ On The Transmigration of Souls – the Pulitzer Prize-winning composition written for the New York Philharmonic in 2002 – and Brahms’ German Requiem. Tickets were $55 for the rear orchestra: a very reasonable price for Carnegie, where tickets to see the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic go for as much as $250.

The Adams was performed first. For those unfamiliar with the work, On The Transmigration of Souls is written for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and a multi-channel recording projected from speakers placed around the concert hall. The recording is of urban street sounds, overlaying a spoken list of 9/11 victims. The sung text comes from personal reminiscences and signs posted in downtown Manhattan by relatives of persons missing after the attack.

The overall effect was extremely powerful, especially hearing it performed here in New York. (I didn’t have the chance to hear the work when it was premiered by the Philharmonic.) For me, it brought back many memories of that day, as well as the many uncertain days and weeks that followed. Conductor David Robertson brought both the chorus master and sound designer out on stage for a much deserved curtain call.

The Brahms was more familiar to me, but no less powerful or dramatic. I had never heard of the soloists, (Camilla Tilling, Soprano; Russell Braun, Baritone) but they were both perfectly capable singers with voices big enough to fill Stern Auditorium. Francine and I exchanged a knowing glance as the crowd applauded loudly at the end.

“So,” I asked as we waited for the crowd to file out around us. “What did you think?”

“It was good,” she said. “I liked it.”

“Was it what you thought it would be?” I asked.

“I didn’t really know what it would be, but I liked it better than the Philharmonic concert.”

“Well, this one certainly had more people onstage.”

“That’s not it,” she said. “I just liked this music better. I wasn’t at all into that other music.”

She told me she particularly liked the Adams, and was interested to learn he lives and teaches in the Bay Area. I offered to lend her some of my CD’s so she could hear other examples of his work.

“Sure,” she said. “Just download them onto your computer and I’ll put them on my iPod.”

In the end, Francine declared that the People’s Symphony Concert was her favorite, primarily for its intimacy but also for its complete lack of pretense and formality. To Francine, it made little difference that the concert was held in a high school auditorium: what mattered was the music – which is, of course, all that ever should matter.

She was less comfortable at Carnegie and Avery Fisher, but saw the need for those types of settings in order to pull off the large scale works we heard, particularly the choral pieces. Still, she said that most young people will have a hard time coughing up $50 to hear music that isn’t familiar to them.

She did have one suggestion:

“Carnegie should start a program where they offer free tickets to our museum staff,” she said. “We actually had a program like this when I worked at SF MOMA: they call the day of the concert, and if there are any leftover tickets, they can pick them up at the box office.”

Made sense to me: Not only would Carnegie be acting as a good neighbor as part of the arts community, the Guggenheim staff – young and arty – would likely talk up the concert to their friends, who would then mention it to their friends, and so on.

Now, if we can just get those orchestra players into black shirts and pants…