Behind the Scenes: Violas and Alcohol – Justin Kownacki

Although I enjoyed Friday night's PSO performance, I now find myself incapable of just enjoying a performance; I have to analyze it — because, as a blogger, I have to find my angle.  (This is the same paradox that disrupted my pleasure in any CD I ever reviewed during my tenure as a music critic: a great performance is no longer good enough, because I'm now in search of a story.)

As often happens, this weekend's story happened offstage.  Not behind it, but rather a block away from it, during the reception held at Olive or Twist by the PSO's New Leadership Board.  (I'm not a new leader, but I play one in public.)  Here, I had the opportunity to discuss the evening's performance with other symphony-goers, musicians and devotees, which provided a much richer context for the music than I would have experienced otherwise.

It also reminded me that all musicians are complicated humans with their own egos, needs and aspirations.  (And, frequently, an off-color sense of humor that doesn't translate well to an all-ages blog…)

Among the many tidbits I gleaned over a Guinness or two:

  • Nick and Ranaan, two thirds of visiting improvisational trio Time for Three, mentioned that this was only the 6th time that they'd played the evening's composition, Concerto 4-3, by Jennifer Higdon.  Considering their ingenuity as musicians, I'd never have known that they were still, in theory, getting the hang of this piece.
  • One of the area's viola players explained how he makes a living as a freelance musician, currently contracted by three different regional organizations.  (He'd also played the Higdon piece's debut.)
  • Like most jobs, orchestras respond differently to each conductor, playing their hearts out for some and just going through the motions for others.  The audience may not notice the difference, but observing musicians can usually identify these clues.
  • One local composer is about to debut two new works — one in Utah, and one performed here by Pittsburgh's gay chorus.  That ironic juxtaposition is, he assures me, completely unintentional…
  • Time for Three were quite pleased to report that they were staying in the same hotel as the Dallas Cowboys… particularly because the Cowboys' cheerleaders were rumored to be staying on the floor above theirs.

And perhaps that's the lasting lesson I'll retain from this weekend: when simply hearing music is no longer "enough" to satisfy one's cultural curiosity, it helps to know who's playing it, how, and why.

But it's even better to know what they do when they're not on stage, because an artist's personality puts all art in context.

3 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: Violas and Alcohol – Justin Kownacki”

  • Justin, I am so jealous right now!! Olive or Twist is my favorite watering hole after (and sometimes before) PSO performances. I never learn anything interesting like this…

  • The point about orchestras responding differently to each conductor is interesting. Not that it’s surprising, it makes total sense I just never thought of it that way. Leaders can bring out our best or be completely uninspiring. I’ll look for the nuance next time I attend a performance.

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