music, Uncategorized

A Night at the Opera: Why Live Music is Better than Earbuds


The problem with going to the symphony is that there are other people there.

People are very distracting.

I generally go to the symphony for the music, but other people go, apparently, to convalesce from lingering illnesses.

You know, if you have a collapsed lung, I’m sorry, but maybe you shouldn’t be going to the symphony.

I’m pretty sure the guy behind me had black lung disease and his wife, a very moist strain of the croup. The guy to my left had some sort of drainage which he tried to resolve vocally.  Two or three times per movement he said, “HEM!” (as in, “ahem,” but without the “a”).  Anything less than mezzo piano and the concert hall was filled with a cacophony of hacks, sniffs, and gurgles. It’s like people were trying. Some guy sitting on the mezzanine level got something stuck in his throat (steel wool?  a shard of glass?  a small ferret?) and expelled it with one startlingly violent explosion. It’s hard to pay attention to the oboe solo when someone with a pulmonary embolism is coughing up blood in Balcony Left.

And people chatter and carry on like they are at home watching B movies on Netflix.  Yak yak yak.  When the Tchaikovsky swells, they talk louder and keep talking when the music stops with a precipitous blank measure. We’re pretty sure the lady sitting next to Ruth blurted into the silence, “I’m gassy.” She also had a maladjusted hearing aid that kept squealing.  The lady, not Ruth.  Anyway, the elderly can talk really loud. By the way, have you noticed that nobody at the symphony shouts out “Classical!” the way the people shout out “Rock and Roll!” at a rock concert? Why is that?  I thought about yelling, “Late Baroque Forever!”during the pre-concert lecture, just to liven things up a little.

It’s easy to drown out the annoying people talking and whistling and shouting “Free Bird!” at a rock concert.  You just crank up the speakers. But you can’t turn up the speakers at the symphony to drown out the squeaky chairs.

Have I mentioned the squeaky chairs? At my local concert hall it’s like they commissioned the “Squeaky Chair Committee” and firmly insisted that they design and install squeaky chairs.  So the committee was thinking, “How about wicker?  That’s pretty noisy.  And what else?  Could we stuff the cushions with sea shells?  Bubble rap?”

I am willing to concede that I could be part of the problem.  Maybe I just need to learn to ignore things (like the woman in front of me scratching her scalp with one bony finger through a pile of permed blue hair).  I was, I’m not proud to admit, bothered by my wife who was reading the program notes during the Catacombs (Respighi). “It’s the Catacombs. You have to listen, dear,” I glared. She glared back, “They are program notes, pal. This is what they’re for,” and kept reading.  Maybe if I went to the symphony more often I would learn to overlook distractions, like the bilious man who insisted on showing off his vast classical music knowledge by being the first to applaud and shout, “Bravo!”  There is always a bilious man who claps first and shouts, “Bravo.”  Nothing demonstrates vast classical music knowledge like knowing when you’re supposed to clap.  Maybe I’m the only one who notices stuff like that.

But let’s suppose the audience had been silent. Better, let’s suppose I had a private audience with the orchestra.  Well, unfortunately, the orchestra is comprised of musicians who are, at least for the most part, people.  Take the percussionists. I hope they’re not getting paid as much as the rest of the orchestra because they don’t really do that much. It’s just four or five guys loitering in the back. I know they’re not technically musicians, but they could at least pretend.  Act busy, fellas.  Occasionally, one of them would put down his cell phone, get up, and bang a gong or something, but then he’d go sit back down and start texting again.  Or worse, they just sit there with their arms folded, looking around.  The looking around is maddening.  Shouldn’t they be concentrating on something?  Counting measures? Then they stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down.

The first chair trumpet player didn’t stand up — he lurched up — right in the middle of the Catacombs (my wife didn’t notice, of course) and dashed out one of the backstage doors, which he didn’t even bother to shut.  So not only is the first chair trumpet player missing, but my OCD is kicking in because the door is open a crack and I’m just wondering what happened to the poor guy.  “Is he incontinent?  Does he have diarrhea?”  I want to be listening to my favorite symphony of all time and all I can think about is the trumpet player on his knees, clinging to his trumpet and the toilet bowl, while retching his guts out. Of course, as it turns out, he left so he could play the famous “offstage” solo.  Again — I could be the problem.

Soloists, in general are distracting.  There should be rules for the soloists. There are alotta decent soloists, I’m sure, who play their part with humble dignity, but probably 75% of them insist on announcing, through a variety of contortions and convulsions, that THEY are playing. There was one guy, in particular, playing something oboe-like, who used every note as an opportunity to point to himself:  “Look at me!  I’m going to play this note and you’ll be able to tell because I’m whipping my oboe to the left… and now to the right… and now around in big expressive circles!”  And if that weren’t bad enough, he also kept lifting himself — poking himself up above the rest of the musicians, by tightening his buttocks against his chair.  I can’t think about pizzicato and arpeggios while I’m thinking about tight buttocks pressed up against a chair.

I should just stay home and listened to my earbuds.

Except then the final movement of the Pines, (the Apian Way), begins.  I’ve listened to it a hundred times on my stereo and I know what Respighi is trying to conjure. But in the symphony hall, it is more than an apparition. I’ve never been to Italy, but I can see the stone road and, in the sun-baked distance, the tips of the red banners fluttering in the wind. I see the Roman legions, war worn but proud, swaying in unison — each battle-hardened soldier filled with stories and mysteries from the Orient.  And I can see children scrambling to the tops of hillocks and stone outcroppings so they can get a better view.  When the piece reaches its climax and the soldiers finally are welcomed into the city, the music rises and shakes the earth, and there is a feeling in the concert hall that simply is not present at home, no matter how loud I turn up my speakers.

I don’t know how to explain the difference, but here’s a strange attempt…

In 2014 a Korean singer/rapper, Psy, wrote a song and performed a video that went world-wide viral: Gangnam Style. To the world’s non-Korean speaking population, it was just jibberish (except for the, “Hey!  Sexy Lady!” which was probably English, not Korean that accidentally sounded like English), but he seemed happy and funny and “it had a good beat and you could dance to it.” His fame swelled. To cash in, he went on a 3 month world tour, and milked his 15 minutes with gusto. When he finally went home to Seoul 80,000 Koreans showed up for a free outdoor concert  and what happened was pretty amazing. The Koreans don’t just listen to the music, they become the music.  Psy has a microphone and a massive wall of speakers to amplify his voice and drown out the crowd, but it doesn’t work — you can just barely hear him. The joyous Koreans are singing and rapping over the top of him. Then, during the chorus (which involves Psy hopping, ridiculously, as if he were riding a horse), the entire sea of humanity joins with him, bouncing up and down and pulsing in perfect unison.  I’m sure I’m reading too much into it, but it’s as if they are rejoicing — collectively delighting in the fact that the world had finally recognized and embraced at least one small piece of Korean culture. The cheering throughout, and of course the ovation, is like nothing I’ve ever heard (or seen) before.

What does this have to do with the symphony?  I’m not exactly sure, but somehow the collective experience of enjoying the performance is more profound than the music alone.  And it doesn’t matter if it’s a silly rap song or one of the most sophisticated works of musical art I’ve had the pleasure of hearing — something bigger happens when we enjoy music — perhaps when we enjoy anything, in community.  When our team scores, we turn to each other and cheer.  When the lecturer says something profound, we nod at each other and extend the conversation over coffee. When the finale concludes, we rise and applaud — something I never do when listening to my earbuds.

Here’s what I do know… I’ve listened to the Pines of Rome a hundred times and it’s magnificent every time, but only once did my eyes fill up with tears. That was the time, this past Saturday, when I listened to the Rochester Philharmonic perform it live, in front of a concert hall… filled with annoying people.

(If you want to listen to the concert version of the gangnam video, listen here.)

(The original video which made him famous is here.)

(And then wash out your ears by listening to Respighi!)


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