Tradition and surprise

Tradition and surprise

Surprise - by WTL photos from Flickr

Most of the time when I attend a symphony performance, I am a little surprised.

Well, surprised is overstating it: I know in advance that the music that will be performed will be new to me, so listening to it will be a fresh experience, even an adventure. This is a big part of what I like about listening to new things, especially when they’re performed live.

The act of attending a concert isn’t so surprising though. You arrive, you get your tickets from Will Call or dig them out of your pocket or purse, you get your program, you find your seat and turn off your cellphone, you listen and enjoy, you applaud only at the end of the work and not after each movement, you clap about as long as everyone else and perhaps stand up if you feel things were extremely good.

Maybe there is some drama along the way — someone in line at Will Call has an issue that backs things up and causes you to worry you’ll be late — but overall there is a standard form to the evening and little variation. In other words, little real surprise.

One of the things I’ve come to see about Music Director Manfred Honeck is that he appreciates tradition, and at the same time he also wants each performance to be surprising — to be delightful and fresh. We saw this last season several times, especially in the unusual staging and presentation of Mozart’s Requiem. And we saw it again this year during the weekend after Thankgiving — in the “waltz concert,” a new tradition that Honeck has brought to the PSO of presenting a series of waltzes, polkas, and other lighter fare suitable for a holiday concert.

The first piece of the evening actually wasn’t a waltz. (I suppose this was sort of a bonus surprise, or a hint of things to come.) It was a complex, almost confusing but ultimately amazing cello concerto by Dvorak that I will need to listen to again. Both the orchestra and the soloist, Johannes Moser, were amazing — I particularly liked the interaction between Moser and the concertmaster on violin.

After intermission, the surprises piled on in earnest. We had:

  • One pleasing piece after another, beautiful lyrical music to make us feel we were in Vienna
  • Children of the orchestra members coming onstage to perform in the “Little Chatterbox Polka” — one little girl’s barrette fell out of her hair, briefly alarming her and the others, but they all held steady and finished with grace
  • Stunning vocal solos by soprano Rebecca Nelsen, who turns out to be as much an actress as she is a singer and who makes opera seem like maybe something worth exploring
  • Visual trickery by Ms. Nelsen, in the form of a singing double who in the middle of a song magically appeared on the left side of the stage just as she disappeared on the right. We’ve come to expect such things on TV and in movies, and really it’s just old-fashioned stage antics (see also: The Mystery of Irma Vep), but it was the perfect little thing to catch all of us in the audience off guard, to wake us up, and to delight us.

The result of all these surprises was that I left Heinz Hall feeling a little floaty. I had expected to be a little surprised; instead, I was entirely astonished, and very happy about it.

Photo credit: “Surprise” by WTL photos on Flickr

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