Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pittsburgh Symphony: a composer, a violinist and a Red Violin

I remember a year ago, my then girlfriend asking about going to a specific concert, by some violinist named Joshua Bell. And not going because we would be out of town in the weekend in question. Fast forward to the summer, while reading the Washington Post reading about an experiment, where one of the most talented and sought after violinists of our generation would bring skills and talent, and play in front of a Washington DC Metro (train) station. Whose name was Joshua Bell. And my thought then was "Brilliant". And so when this year's schedule came out, I was looking forward to this concert.

The hall was packed! I was so impressed. We knew something was up when some of the garages were marked as full, and the poster up front bore the notice "Standing room only." And going to the pre-talk with (PSO assistant conductor) Lawrence Koh and (composer) John Corigliano it was a larger and more varied crowd then we are used to seeing at these.

The excitement was palpable in the audience. Before the start of the Red Violin Concerto, Leonard Slatkin came on stage with . . . John Corigliano and felt the need to apologize and promise that Joshua Bell was coming. It showed after the first movement, when there was quite a bit of applause (I know that it is not 'proper' and I don't myself, but I always view it as a good sign when it happens as it means there are new people in the audience, and it is honest applause. It also reminded me of the Washington Post article. Most people at the Washington DC Metro station ignored Joshua Bell's playing, but everytime a child came by, the mother had to tear them away because they were so attracted by it.) The whole piece was a treat.

One aspect making the evening different was the incredible interaction between the composer and the audience. Corigliano came out with Koh for the pre-talk to discuss the work. Both Bell and Corigliano worked the autograph line after the first half (which was one of the largest autograph lines I've seen at Heinz Hall). And they both came for the post-concert talk (which was also much larger then the norm).

I've been exposed to the debate on whether music should be able to stand on its own. And my feeling has always been no, it is part of a context (well, sometimes it is not, but sometimes I walk away from a performance wondering what it was all about.) I have the same attitude towards art (painting and sculpture, literature, and other media. And for something like this, does it really matter that why Corigliano was never a musician (which is a story that my fiancee and I found so honest and realistic about life), or the fear he has when a new piece is first played and how this comes from the days of listening to his father perform? Or that Joshua Bell's violin was also once upon a time stolen and played in cafes, much like the referenced Red Violin of the movie. Maybe not, although it does make it more human. But understanding that the alternative to The Red Violin Concerto was pieces by period composers such as Bach, Vivaldi and Paganini, the desire to have a theme cross through musical styles, the fact (and techniques) that the violin was sometimes played in ways that changed the quality of the sound to achieve effects, and identifying some of the themes did enhance my listening. While the music is able to stand by itself (I have enjoyed my CD, and I'm listening to it as I write), knowing the choices made in its creation, the composing, and its performance has greatly enhanced my enjoyment of it. And the richness of sound as played live by Bell and the PSO in Heinz Hall only added to it.
Post a Comment