I have offered restaurant reviews for my readers in the past, but this time, I have a guest reviewer, my son Steven that reported on a recent performance of the Eugene Symphony at the Hult Center as part of his school work. I thought the report was excellent and gave me a real feeling of being in the audience. I convinced him to let me share it on my blog. So here is Steve Chamberlin’s report on Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto for Piano. Enjoy!
I attended the performance of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto for Piano at the Hult Center in Eugene. I chose this performance for my first classical concert experience because I really had no idea what to expect. By choosing a professional performance, I felt my odds of actually liking the performance would go up significantly. I was not disappointed.
Originally I had intended to take my wife so we could have a 'date night', but due to a work conflict, I ended up taking my seven year old daughter. My daughter enjoys the 'Celtic Women' performances so I was hoping she might enjoy a live concert. As it turned out, there was only one other child at the performance. I think having the two children in the audience brought the average age of attendees down to about 65 years old.
We arrived at the Hult Center a little early in order to have enough time to find our seats and to have a look around the center before the concert. I purchased box seats so I would reduce the chance of disturbing anyone while I took notes during the concert. What I did not take into consideration was how high these seats are above the audience. Once I found our seats, it took a few minutes to get over my fear of heights. My daughter, on the other hand, loved the seats and immediately went to the rail to look over at the rest of the audience. We settled in and waited for the performance to start.
As we sat waiting for the concert to start, the orchestra was busy tuning and reviewing the music they would be playing that night. What a cacophony. The sound was everywhere. I tried to focus on a couple instruments but it was impossible. It was like a runner preparing for a marathon, all the players warming up their muscles and getting ready to play for the next couple hours.
I looked away for just a couple moments and everyone in the orchestra except the string section had disappeared. The lights dimmed and I thought, 'Finally we are going to start.'. I was wrong. What came next was a commercial from the President of the Hult Center acknowledging the commercial sponsors of the nights performance. Did I really just pay $88 dollars for a commercial? I was not impressed. After the commercial, she introduced the Conductor who came out and presented yet another commercial for upcoming events. This is not going well and I started wondering what I just wasted my money on. Finally the commercials are over and both the President and Conductor leave the stage.
The next person to enter the stage was a violinist who was greeted with cheers and applause. She acknowledged the crowd and took her seat. Following her was the Conductor, again greeted by applause and cheers. He stopped to acknowledge three people, first and second chair violin and what I assume was first chair viola. This just seemed odd to me for some reason, why just those three people? He took his place on the podium and raised his hands. What happened next was a complete surprise.
The bows came up and took their first draw across the strings. They had me at hello! The sound produced was, to say the least, awe inspiring. Being able to compare the dissonance of the warm-up with the powerful consonance of the opening note was just awesome. I instantly forgot the height of the seats, the $88 dollars I paid for the commercials and just enjoyed the feeling of awe that rose through my body as the strings began to play 'Fantasia on a Theme'.
This was a great opening piece. The sound was playful and vibrant, consisting of only the string section. All of the instruments seemed to be talking to each other, either as group or individually. Both my daughter and I enjoyed the energetic chatter between the first chair violin and viola. The piece wrapped up with a resounding crescendo that was met with much applause and well deserved hoots and hollers from the audience. Being able to see the complexity of playing the music combined with hearing the sounds produced really made this performance well worth the price of admission.
The second performance started with another surprise as the Conductor introduced the composer of 'Second Concerto for Orchestra', Steven Stucky. The introduction gave way to a short Q&A between the Conductor and Mr. Stucky about the music we were about to hear. Apparently the title of the piece was lost on me at first. I did not realize that concertos were typically written for specific instruments and not for the whole orchestra. Mr. Stucky explained that he wrote the piece to include all of his friends in the LA Philharmonic Orchestra with the theme being friendship, fun and love.
The Conductor's next question filled my head with the sound of a record player needle being scratched across the record violently. He asked Mr. Stucky to explain how the audience should interpret the music we were about to hear. Why would he do that? I wanted to experience the music from an 'Unlistening' perspective. I did not want someone telling me how to hear the music. Thankfully Mr. Stucky quipped, “Music is like a joke. If you don't get it, I can't explain it to you.”. Great answer! Mr. Stucky did point out that in the second movement he wanted to play a game with his friends throughout the orchestra but left it up to the audience to discover and interpret the game.
The piece started with more or less of an introduction of the orchestra. The 'Overture' began by introducing each section of the orchestra, moving from left to right through the strings, into the brass and woodwinds, percussion and finally the piano and harp. Once everyone was playing together, the movement built to an abrupt end signaling the start of the second movement.
Surprisingly, about one third of the audience responded with applause! Wait a minute. The audience is supposed to wait to the end of the entire concerto before applauding, right? That explains why the other two thirds of the audience responded with grumbles and gasps. This was noticeably awkward for the Conductor and orchestra. Yes, I laughed to myself and thought 'Whew. I'm not the only newbie here.'.
The second movement started and I began searching for 'The Game'. To me it was not as simple as someone might think. It took listening to the entire piece to form an idea of what Mr. Stucky was trying to accomplish. I found it odd that throughout the piece we were treated to some non-typical solo's. I never expected to hear a bassoon or a french horn or even a xylophone solo in a classical music piece, but they were there. In between the solo's, there was a lot of 'dream sequence' flute playing which seemed to be building in dynamics throughout the piece. Eventually, everyone played together in a what I can only describe as a crescendo to beat all crescendos, or so I thought.
To me the game was more than just bouncing a ball around the orchestra. The game incorporated not only instrumental sound but spacial arrangement. The sounds produced not only a unique arrangement but a spacial visualization to the music. Those odd solo's are there for a reason. They allow your ear to see the music as it moves from one place to another, bridging the hard boundaries between the sections. The game was like being only able to only hear a tennis match as the ball moved from side to side, front to back and sometimes all places at once.
As promised during the Q&A, the finale was a “fasten your seat belts” kind of performance. The sound was everywhere, very fast and very loud. The ending crescendo of the second movement paled in comparison to that of the third. A very clear and distinct ending to a memorable concerto which received appropriately timed applause, standing ovations, hoots and hollers and I even heard some yelling 'Bravo!'. Mr. Stucky returned to the stage to receive the praise and even some flowers while acknowledging the performance of the orchestra and Conductor.
Time for the intermission. My daughter and I ventured to the lobby to stretch our legs and get something to drink. It was amazing to me how many people stopped her to ask if she liked the performance. Being one of the only children in the audience, made her a bit of a novelty and people could not get over how well behaved and attentive she was to the music. Being a girl, she enjoyed the attention along with some apple juice and a cookie during the break.
We returned to our seats to find a completely different looking stage. The stage had been set for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. Only the strings remained with the exception of the kettle drums and of course the piano which took center stage. First violin joined the rest of the strings and played a quick tuning note for the rest of the strings to follow before taking her chair. The Conductor was the next to come out followed closely by the featured pianist Angela Hewitt. Both were met again with much applause and excitement.
As the Conductor raised his hands, there was an almost deafening silence in the hall followed by the strings section playing as one voice. The first movement progressed and it took some time before the piano joined in. I was beginning to wonder if she would ever start playing but then she did.
Generally I am not a big fan of piano music but in this case it was very pleasant. I found myself distracted by what I think are over exaggerations of movement while she played the piano but she actually seemed to be lost in the music. Throughout the three movements she would finish a large section of music and then look at the orchestra as if to say, “Did you hear that?! I rocked it! Now keep up!”.
Even though I am not a fan of the piano, I can appreciate the amount of talent Ms. Hewitt displayed. Moving through the complex notes and steps and she worked her way from one end of the piano to the other was simply amazing and she truly seemed to be enjoying the music.
As expected, the second movement claimed my daughter as she fell asleep on my lap. I almost expected that to happen as the concerto followed the fast-slow-fast format. She woke up as the vivace pace of the third movement kicked in and rounded out the concerto.
Again, the audience was on its feet as the last note played and Ms. Hewitt stood to receive the applause and acknowledge the Conductor and orchestra for an excellent performance. But when do you stop applauding? This was the question I began to ask myself after Ms. Hewitt left and returned to the stage three times. Apparently the answer to the question is; when the performer starts the encore. Ms. Hewitt treated the crowd to an encore performance. I have no idea what the name of the piece was, but as expected she rocked it. After which she returned to the stage two more times for applause and flowers. I had no idea the symphony could be filled with so much energy.
Overall it was a fun night. I was very surprised at how much I actually enjoyed listening to the music and experiencing the live performance. Being able to see the amount of talent it takes to play the instruments and the percussionist running their butts off back and forth between various items to bang on, helps me to appreciate what it takes to not only perform something like this, but to even compose it in the first place. Taking all of the individual pieces into account and coming up with a single coherent sound is amazing.
So where does this experience leave me? I will definitely attend the symphony again. We are planning to attend next months performance of Beethoven's 5th to include Handel's “Royal Fireworks” and Mozart's Mass “Coronation”. Although I enjoyed the symphony with my daughter, I think this time I'll take my wife for what should prove to be a very memorable date night.