Monday, September 24, 2012

Too complex for you

Last night I attended the Boston Baroque's concert at Longy, a performance of a work in progress by the ensemble's director Martin Pearlman. The work, entitled "Finnigan's Wake: An Operoar," was not Baroque in the slightest (as Pearlman made sure to tell the audience before the concert began, in case there was some sort of miscommunication about the program's contents).

The concert was oddly structured: First, there was about 20 minutes of introductory remarks and a brief overview of the piece's conception and construction. Next, the piece was performed (about 30 minutes in duration). After intermission, a discussion was held in which audience members were invited to ask questions and comment on the piece, and afterwards, the 30 minute work was performed again. By the time the discussion had ended and the piece was underway for the second time, roughly 2/3 of the audience had left. Which got me thinking about structuring concert programs--how does one arm an audience with enough knowledge about a piece to facilitate active listening, yet not too much as to detract from the music itself? Of course, this answer will be different depending on the audience and the music being performed. In the case of yesterday evening, Mr. Pearlman apparently felt that no single written or verbal method was enough to prepare the audience to engage with his piece--only after he performed it for them a second time would they be able to "get" it. This struck me as pretentious, to say the least; then again, the type of audience that Boston Baroque attracts isn't likely to encounter much in the way of contemporary classical music (or at least not the kind of music found in the "Operoar"). Perhaps it was his way of orienting his audience with this potentially unfamiliar style.

Throughout his remarks, Mr. Pearlman kept referring to his work as "complex" and "multilayered." While it is true that the source material (James Joyce's "Finnigan's Wake") is extremely complex, I felt the piece itself wasn't as unwieldy as he made it seem. This may be a function of personal biases I have towards new music, but several sections were downright conventional in terms of harmony/gesture to my ear. This got me thinking on a different topic--the extent to which a composer's descriptions and explanations of his/her work actually match reality. It's an easy pitfall to get into--musically realizing a non-musical conception can be very challenging and it's not always easy to step back and take an objective view of one's art. I thought Pearlman's generalization served to further condescend to his audience and distance himself from them and their ability to comprehend such a "complicated" work. Apparently, 2/3 of the audience felt the same way (or else didn't fancy hearing the exact same 30 minute piece again).

Perhaps this concert structure was an experiment, and has no bearing on the way Mr. Pearlman or Boston Baroque normally conduct concerts. But as such, I considered it a failure. At no point did I feel fully engaged with the music--it's the same effect that Cook talks about where the author of a work is hierarchically placed above the consumer due to the ways in which authority is transferred. It was essentially a classical industrial economy of production, distribution and consumption on a micro scale at work in the concert hall last night.

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