Expectations – Cynthia Closkey

Saturday night’s concert was one heck of a show. If we were to give the PSO an evaluation for
the evening, I think we’d all agree they Exceeded Expectations.

That’s saying something. There was much to expect:

  • A new season
  • An orchestra chock-full of world-class musicians
  • A new musical director — one who’d been announced well over a year ago and who’d lately been featured in every major and minor media channel in the area
  • A full house on the second night of a weekend of sold-out performances
  • An acclaimed soloist playing an instrument worth $3.5 million or so, a violin so famous it has a name and a storied history all its own

It’s the kind of set-up that is so grand, so loaded that it’s hard to imagine the night will fulfill its promise.

And yet it did. The concert, the performances, the new maestro, the violin and violinist, everything was all I might have hoped.

What struck me through the evening was how much the music itself centered on defying expectations, or taunting the listener with them.

  • John Adams’s "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" is called minimalist, but it requires the efforts of the full orchestra and comes across as a massive force of sound. And who, after kindergarten, would think of propelling a musical work by woodblock?
  • Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto seemed to me lyrical and sweet, then jagged and emotional, switching back and forth to sooth and suprise in turn.
  • Mahler laces his First Symphony with pieces of other works — "Frere Jacques," Bohemian folk music, the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel’s Messiah — to help the listener know what’s going on, clues that work because they play on our expectations. Then he creates a clear conclusion, fakes us out with an extended denouement, and returns with another, grander ending, made the more powerful by being unexpected.

These challenges to our expectations are what make the music work — they are what create the sense of delight. If we heard only what we expected to hear, we would feel no jolt of surprise.

Surprise is part of why we attend a live performance anyway. If we wanted only to hear the exact same thing as we’ve heard before, we’d listen to a recording, perhaps one that had been perfected in a studio to burnish away any rough edges.

There’s more to live performance of course. There’s the energy of being in the same space as the performers, the chance to see the musicians interact with each other, the ability to respond and have your response influence the performance as well.

Part of the pleasure is in hearing what you knew you would hear — a favorite work, a talented group of musicians. Part comes from hearing something in that work that you hadn’t heard before — these particular musicians, led by this particular conductor, bringing to the music their personal abilities and interpretations, a new perspective, a special energy.

We want to be witness to something special and perfect. But we also get a weird thrill from the possibility of a mistake.

Example: Between the first and second movements of the Violin Concerto, Joshua Bell seemed to have trouble with the tuning of his violin. He tweaked the strings, looked unhappy with the results, made a soft, nervous comment to the audience. We — audience, orchestra, conductor, staff — waited and worried.

Finally Bell seemed reasonably satisfied, and Honeck led the orchestra into the second movement — which sounded at least as beautiful as the first.

Tragedy had been averted, man and music had overcome odds, and the result was sweeter because we were reminded of how fragile the elements of live performance are.

1 thought on “Expectations – Cynthia Closkey”

  • Wonderful post! I especially agree with your ‘surprise’ aspect. And your description of the final movement of the Mahler symphony is thought provoking. I will remember they way you’ve described it: “Then he creates a clear conclusion, fakes us out with an extended denouement, and returns with another, grander ending, made the more powerful by being unexpected.”

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