Thursday, June 07, 2007

Going, going, gong.

Last week, I went to several concerts as part of the tail end of the Prague Spring music festival As is the case with most things, there are many people out there far more qualified to review such events than yours truly, including the Visiting Music Teacher On A Half-Term Holiday (VMTOAHT - 'tis catchy, n'est ce pas?) who went with me. So what follows is definitely not a review of the concerts. Critics who have a better grip on their contrabassoon fingering technique than me can wrestle with the tricky nuances of mezzo-soprano soloist's coloratura passages.

An important thing to consider when arranging any concert is the whole ugly business of spectacle. After all, if there isn't something to look at, the more cynical members of the audience may wander off at the interval, grumbling about the price of tickets and beer before they can buy any of those commemorative T-shirts and limited edition socket sets. More performers in the world of pop/rock than you can chuck a scale model of Stonehenge and malfunctioning wardrobe at(,) know this to be true.

In the world of classical music, things are a tad more muted, spectacle-wise. That's how any fule know it's posh. Kinda like the way tastefully abstract visual metaphors rather than flowing tresses, lasers, pouffy gowns, muscular definition and elves with blue skin indicate respectable literature. (Note to self: Is it possible for a scantily-shirted humanoid with a well-defined chest, blue or not, to be an acceptable visual metaphor for a Great Narrative Theme, or does cleavage immediately sound the death knell of Great Art? Unless you're Richardson, of course, exploiting said bounteaous cleavage for your own nefarious purposes. Pamela Shmamela, apparently.)

Anyhow, a dearth of revolving stages and sparkly replica helicopters (although oddly enough, not necessarily straining bosoms) is usually a giveaway for the sort of concert where the audience is expected to assume either an earnest expression of restrained rapture (eyes-gently-shut-with-periodic-appreciative-inhalations-through-the-nose-during-emotional-passages) or intense concentration (eyes-gently-shut-with-a-slight-frown-and-periodic-small-yet-vigorous-nods-of-approval-of-that-rather-eloquent-rubato-leading-into-the-andante-passage). Tapping along is optional and should always be discreet. No one is allowed to wave their arms vigorously but the person with the stick at the front of the orchestra, or the occasional trombonist with sinus troubles. If there is no one with a stick, the person who most looks like they ought to have one usually wins the conducting free-for-all. Iron-grey hair and a dark suit help in this case.

Luckily for me, all the venues that featured as part of last week's whirl of concert attendance were equipped with bling in spades. Even at the gig where my view of the performers from the cheap seats was entirely blocked by a pillar, the obstructive column was liberally bedecked with ecclesiastical roccoco-a-go-go and a big picture of the Pope. Better yet was the view from the back of the rather stupendous bobbing combover we had when sitting underneath a big flag in the organ balcony at another gig.

But the most memorable was the music-from-the-kitchen-sink concert, which featured most of the instruments and orthodox novelty techniques from the western canon (but no canons or other light artillery, although there were some fugal passages). Audience members could happily debate the Hammond organ and flute duet during the interval, as well as thorny issues such as, "Was that a vibraphone in the last bit, or were they just happy to see us?"

Me? I was just waiting for someone to take advantage of the enormous gong propped up at the back of the percussion section. Something so large, brass and circular clearly was crying out for loud crash at a moment of high drama. Except it didn't. I don't know if it was a cunning ruse to maintain a thread of suspense through the event, or if I failed to appreciate the way some composer had counter-intuitively written a passage of extreme suspense where the instrument was stroked lightly with a paintbrush. But as the final note of the concert sounded, there was still nary a big bong to show for the whole two-hour musical extravaganza. And somehow, I still feel the lack.

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