Battling Perceptions – Justin Kownacki

Last weekend, before their departure to wow the audiences in China, I caught the PSO's performance with pianist Yefim Bronfman.  It was spirited stuff, with Bronfman's full-body musicality punctuating a program that merged Strauss, Mozart and Beethoven — solid classics that any attendee would enjoy (or so it would seem — more on that later).

But my last two PSO concerts have left me filled with questions about perception.  For example:

  • The program notes for Strauss's Death and Transfiguration mention that Strauss composed the piece at the "preposterously young age" of 24.  Which begs the question… preposterous to whom, exactly?  Who decides what "the norm" is in the evolution of an artist?  Considering Welles directed Citizen Kane at 26, and Hendrix was dead by 27, 24 doesn't necessarily seem preposterously young after all…
  • Is it odd that classical musicians are judged primarily on their ability to recreate the works of long-dead composers, while modern musicians who make a living exclusively covering other people's work are usually thought of as hacks?  At what point did the focus shift from musicians as interpreters to musicians as creators?
  • Speaking of, what do the individuals in the orchestra think during the soloist's performance?  Is it an honor for them to simply sit back and listen, or do they resent the audience's attention being focused on one person while the other 60 of them sit idle?
  • How unnatural is it for an audience to hold their applause until the end of a work, rather than spontaneously cheering throughout?  It's as though the emotions we experience during the initial movements of a piece are insignificant compared to the final throes.
  • Likewise, where does one draw the line for a standing ovation?  As someone who's underexposed to the symphony, I think it all sounds equally marvelous — which makes it difficult to decide when something is worth standing up for.  (Everyone else seems to be on a standing ovation streak these days, while I remain planted in my seat, having decided that I'll stand when I can demonstrably detect a superiority in the performance — and I did so after the PSO's rendition of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92.)
  • Maybe not everyone else is standing up these days…  At my last PSO outing, a septuagenarian gentleman was so irate that his wife had dragged him to the symphony, he refused to applaud even once.  Instead, he kept flipping through a copy of Newsweek that lay open beside his seat.  Between him and the 17 year-old kid who snored loudly through Beethoven, I suppose the PSO can't win them all…

Lastly, I should mention that it's taken me this long — nearly the end of the season — to finally witness a performance by conductor Manfred Honeck (yet I've somehow managed to see Leonard Slatkin at least twice).  I obviously don't know enough about the process to judge the better from the best, but I will say this: Honeck seems to authentically enjoy every moment he spends in tandem with his orchestra.  And I say "in tandem with," rather than "in front of," because it feels like while some other conductors have insisted on directing the orchestra toward their own vision of how a piece SHOULD sound, Honeck simply reminds his orchestra of what they already know.  I'm just guessing, but I imagine that kind of respect goes a long way toward building a trusted rapport.

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