May 29, 2017

It’s Your Job to be at the Concert, Harriet



Last year, against my current lethargy and the 5 pieces of pizza I’d had for dinner, I upgraded to snappy casual and drove to the DSO. Garrick Ohlsson performed Copland’s only piano concerto with the Detroit Symphony – a rarely heard work – now, one of my favorite pieces. A brief moment of pizza-coma, and I could have gone my entire life without hearing this piece.

As regular concert-goer, I’m a comp ticket punchline. I will go to any concert I’m invited to and dramatically rearrange my schedule if I happen upon free tickets to anything. As a normal participant in society, I appreciate entertainment. Recently, it’s become more than that: multiple concerts in one evening, recycling symphony programs, scalping chamber music tickets – really, a bit abnormal – a pesky shoulder-devil that whispers “It’s your job to be at the concert, Harriet.” Consider Ella Enchanted, except instead of not being able to lie, I’m unable to turn down any reasonable opportunity to attend a concert.

There’s several parts to this curse. I have a system: I have criteria, I have a checklist, I have a duty to HUMANITY – no matter what, I usually end up at the concert.

Towards the end of each week, I make my way to the Detroit Symphony website to evaluate my obligations for the weekend. Being fairly meticulous about planning my life around concert calendars, I have a broad set of criteria that classifies a concert as “you can’t miss this.” For example, if it’s a piece by a composer that I admire, I go. If it’s a piece by a composer I’ve never heard of, I go. If there’s some sort of soloist, unusual instrument, rarely heard work, lavish guest conductor, modernist masterpiece, etc., I really must go.

There’s hardly a concert I can justify missing. Every now and again, a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto rolls through paired with an early Beethoven Symphony and I say: “alright Harriet, you’ve seen these pieces before, you can take a break.” Admittedly, the DSO has somehow gotten ahold of my criteria and includes some sort of kryptonite nearly every week. Stealthy programming ploys aside, after considering my personal aspirations as any sort of meaningful artist, all remaining justifications evaporate.

To summarize, my shoulder-devil (angel?) collects ammunition from all over, dragging me to concerts as part of a profusely dense conscience that I’ll try to describe here using my good friend Aaron Copland, as it’s often dead composers that ground me.

Copland tells us, “Take seriously your responsibility as a listener. All of us, professionals and layman alike, are forever striving to make our understanding of the art more profound. You need be no exception…”  So in this case, Aaron is talking to me. I am no exception, it is my job (it is your job) to be there. This isn’t just about me – after all, I’m just one listener one concert. This is about the vitality of every single ear in the room. The role of the audience is paramount; it is indispensable – Copland is just giving us a hint.

The modern concert experience is quite the event – and the proper delivery of this great art is a dynamic operation. There are composers and musicians – there is an audience. Time elapses – music plays – you hear a melody – it happens again – the melody changes, flips, contorts, etc. – you lose the melody – you get confused – you start to fall asleep – the melody returns – cadence – happiness – applause (this is sonata form).

Great works, by design, are these weird shells that only makes sense when there’s something to cast through them. I don’t mean to call art a “weird shell,” but it is weird that we are (I am) still listening to music from hundreds of years ago…and crying. The rhetoric has shifted (although I like a good Renaissance dance) but the roles are the same: composer, musician, audience. Composers and musicians have an important task – but in the end, the listeners determine the life of the work. In other words, you have to be there. If a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one around to hear the recapitulation at the end of the first movement, is there a sound?

Copland returns, “it is our combined reaction as listeners that most profoundly influences both the art of composition and interpretation, it may truthfully be said that the future of music is in our hands.” Put simply: I really can’t skip concerts, because I feel like the future of music is in my hands.




Featured text: “What to Listen for in Music,” by Aaron Copland

Featured music: Copland’s Piano Concerto

Featured photo: blurry me at the MET Opera; bad iPhone photography courtesy of John Albert Harris, Composer