Arclight Cinemas, Berlin Philharmonic, Gil Shaham, Hollywood Bowl, Joshua Bell, LA Phil, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas, MTT, New World Symphony, Ojai Music Festival, Oslo Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Pop-up video, Rite of Spring, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, The Bad Plus, VH1, Walt Disney Hall
Ever since I was a young child I have enjoyed the summer tradition of attending concerts (mostly classical) at the Hollywood Bowl. My family would go with a group of friends, buy tickets in the nosebleed section, bring a picnic, and pass around binoculars to get a better view of the orchestra. Those were the days before smart phones, before social media — and maybe we were better audience members back then, but after attending last night’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto, I came away wondering what has changed between now and then that has caused me to now have such a love/hate relationship with the Hollywood Bowl.
First, there is the social media issue. The Hollywood Bowl has several jumbo screens set up throughout the seating area, and before the concert begins, they post two messages: 1) you can send pictures you’ve taken at the Bowl to their email, and said pictures may appear on their website, and 2) put your cell phones away during the concert, or you might be asked to leave. They even list (on the jumbo screen) a number you can text or call if someone around you is breaking their “Code of Conduct“, which includes not taking photos with flash, or talking during a performance. The message that they want attendees to interact with them by sending photos almost contradicts their message of turning off cell phones. It shouldn’t, but it does. From my seat there were several people taking photos WITH FLASH during the Sibelius concerto. They were ignored by the ushers, and no one around me seemed to mind, except me. In the second half of the performance, I moved to a different seat to try and avoid the people who were causing such a ruckus, and ended up a row behind a drunk guy who was talking the whole time, his girlfriend who was eating the whole time, and then putting the empty food containers away in a noisy plastic bag, and a couple behind me who didn’t bother turning the shutter sound off on their iPhone before taking pictures (again, during the quiet movements of the Tchaikovsky). So there’s my little rant about disrespectful/uninformed audiences. Social media and classical music can coexist, but let’s all remember that we’re not at a rock concert.
I DO appreciate that the Bowl is making classical music more accessible to a wider audience. In the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s okay that one music snob (me) suffers in the name of classical music advocacy; however, let’s think about the programming for a moment. To do that, let’s talk about film. Let’s say that you’re really into a dark, heavy drama and you want to see it with minimal distractions (you want to catch it in the theater, rather than wait for it to come out on video). You’re going to choose to see it in the Arclight, where they tell you to turn off your cell phones, where they WILL kick you out if you talk, and where they let you pick your seats and give a short introduction before the film. If it’s a popcorn film, you can go to any old theater because it doesn’t really matter so much. The same rule should apply for classical music. If you’re very serious about the piece you are going to hear, the ideal setting would be Disney Hall, rather than an outdoor amphitheater. But if you’re going to have the LA Phil play an outdoor venue of that size, perhaps the programming should lean towards pops, and not quiet, emotional music, like what was on the program last night. The range of dynamics in both pieces left too much reasonable doubt for the average listener, in terms of places to clap. So in addition to the clapping in between movements (pet peeve), you also got the guy who was so eager to be the first one to applaud, that he ended up clapping during the last movement, after the recapitulation of the “Fate” motif that opens the symphony with the brass section (hint: just because there is a pause after a long chord does not mean the piece has ended, and furthermore, Tchaikovsky would NOT end a symphony on a minor (diminished?) chord.). Perhaps we need to better inform the audience. Let them know that there are four movements, and not to clap in between. Project the beginning of each movement onto the jumbo screen, with a note to “please hold your applause until the end of the symphony.” Perhaps there should be a note in the program that if you can’t count to four movements, to wait until everyone else is applauding, and then join in.
There are organizations who are doing this the right way. The New World Symphony, and the Pacific Symphony, for example, both have simulcast concerts where you can attend inside the hall, or watch it from a live broadcast outside the hall with a picnic. You could definitely do this at the Hollywood Bowl, simply by splitting it into two sections: the section that is there to focus on the music, and the section that is there to have the music as background to a picnic and conversation. For the “picnic” crowd, you could do the concert like a pop-up video (VH1), with little blurbs on which instruments are playing, notes on the program, and the musicians. For the Tchaikovsky, you could mention the “Fate” motif, the cute clarinet theme, and how the majority of the 3rd movement is done with pizzicato in the strings. You could point out how the bassoon player was picking his nose during the clarinet solo. You could mention that Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) is also the conductor of the New World Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony, and makes over $2.4 million a year. It could be fun! Informative! Enlightening! And best of all, it would keep half of the bowl quiet for those of us who spend the weeks leading up to the concert listening to our favorite recordings of the pieces that will be played, studying, getting familiar, and then going to enjoy the experience of a live performance.
I’m going back to the Bowl in a few weeks to hear the Rite of Spring, a piece that has seen a lot of action lately, with the 100th anniversary of its premiere (which happened on May 29, 2013). In the past few months, I’ve heard it performed by the jazz trio, The Bad Plus, and I’ve also heard a truly amazing recording of it performed for four hands on piano by MTT and Leonard Bernstein, which was brought to my attention by The Bad Plus at the Ojai Music Festival (major thanks to them!!). I don’t suppose that this performance will cause riots, but only because I think the audience will be too busy enjoying their picnic to let it effect them to any extent. Maybe I will bring a bag of potato chips and, as they say, “if you can’t beat them, join them”.