Given a choice I always would prefer to be onstage conducting a performance of a piece of mine rather than sitting out in the audience. This doesn’t mean that I am not gratefully appreciative when other conductors program something of mine. Not at all.
It’s just that I, like many composers, know that sitting in an audience while a piece of mine is being performed can be a seriously embarrassing experience. You’re out there in the hoi polloi and there is a better than fifty-fifty chance the person sitting next to you doesn’t have a clue he’s sitting NEXT TO THE COMPOSER!
This is usually what happens: You arrive at the hall about an hour before the show. Frequently there will be a pre-concert talk, during which you’ll answer questions from the stage before a hundred or so listeners. I love these folks. They are the ones who have made a genuine effort to arrive an hour early in order to learn something about what they are about to hear at the concert. They will end up being roughly ten or fifteen percent of the listeners, and they will likely be the only ones to recognize you once the performance begins.
When it’s time for the concert, you find your place in row W and quietly slide into it. The guy in the business suit in the neighboring seat nods perfunctorily to you. He doesn’t know you from Adam. (Certainly not from Adams.) All he knows is that he paid ninety bucks for tickets for himself and the wife, and before he gets to hear something he can hum he’s got to sit through some “contemporary music.” Whose idea was it to put this thing on the concert, anyway?” Little does he know that the perpetrator is right next to him.
The lights dim, and the conductor comes out onstage. You notice that he’s wearing “tails” that look like they were borrowed from the wine steward at the local Italian restaurant (probably called “Prego” or “Intermezzo”). Maestro gives the downbeat and YOUR PIECE is launched. It sounds strange, even to you. Why is it that the Beethoven (or the Mozart or the Mahler), no matter how bad a performance it may be, or how dreadful might be the acoustics of the hall, will always sound pretty much the way you remember it, whereas YOUR OWN PIECE sounds like a gob of undifferentiated atonal slurry? You start mumbling to yourself, “calm down, it’s OK, you’re just overreacting.”
Then your neighbor, the guy in the business suit, starts to get restless. This is a bad sign, as we’re only in the third minute of your piece. He leans over and mutters something to his wife. She nods her head in an expression of dour assent and continues studying the lingerie ad in the program book. The man adjusts his position in his seat. Then he finds not one, but six places on his body to scratch—all rated PG, fortunately.
Some of my pieces are in a single large, uninterrupted movement. But if the orchestra is playing a longish one with pauses between movements that’s—ahah!—time for a “BlackBerry Break,” the pause that refreshes.
This is an increasingly common event in concerts of classical music, and it doesn’t have to be just for tedious, contemporary pieces like mine. Recently I attended a stirring, thoughtful performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. When the first movement came to its abrupt, fateful final D minor cadence, the two people to my left and right both “lit up,” checking their emails and making a quick Facebook flyby. Beethoven’s message to humanity was stirring and ennobling, but the lure of their inbox was infinitely greater.
I’m lucky enough to receive generally good performances—in some cases really wonderful ones. But it isn’t always the case. Now and then a jetlagged, distracted conductor will give a downbeat that resembles the starting pistol at a dog race. The orchestra then scrambles to stay together, wrong notes and false entrances go ripping through the air like debris caught in the whirl of a tornado, and I, the composer (the man sitting next to the guy in the business suit) am overcome with a case of inarticulate, inchoate panique. Every composer knows this desperate, sinking feeling. You have all you can do not to bolt out of your seat, run up onto the stage, grab the conductor by his suspenders, look for his “OFF” button, and signal to the audience in frantic semaphore gestures “No no no no no, folks, that’s NOT the way it goes. Please—I didn’t write that.”
But that’s a fantasy. What really happens is that you just tough it out, knowing that when you walk up onstage for a bow, you’ll wade through a sea of if-looks-could-kill expressions from the hapless orchestra players.
So—-the piece is over. During the dribble of applause you discreetly leave your seat, dart around the back of the audience and come up onstage to take a bow. Perhaps the conductor will make that gesture so dear to the profession—a stagey shading his or her eyebrows from the bright lights and a grand peering out into the audience with a questioning look. That is the cue that says to the assembled multitude, “the COMPOSER is not only alive (or was when we started this piece) but is here and is going to come up onstage and take a bow!”
People in the U.S. are generally much too polite or intimidated to really express their reactions. Once in a while a boo will get mixed in with the patter of applause. That can add a certain spice to the moment. You’ll see some amused expressions from the orchestra members when that happens. (No one is ever going to boo after the Mahler, that’s for sure.) But generally everything is carried out in correct decorum. If the brother-in-law of your second cousin is in the second balcony you might see him, a solitary figure far off in the distance, giving you a “standing O” and cheering while the people seated around him look on with quietly perplexed expressions.
You return to your seat. The guy in the business suit and his wife have by now realized that they were sitting next to THE COMPOSER. As you sheepishly sink into your place they stand up and applaud you. He offers you his hand and exclaims:
“Terrific! Do you hear all that stuff in your head?”
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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