Facing the Music: Observations from the Music Tent | AspenTimes.com

Facing the Music: Observations from the Music Tent

by Bruce Berger
for The Aspen Times

An occasional hazard at concerts in the Aspen Music Festival tent is the behavior of fellow listeners. Though hardshell in its current iteration, the venue is informal compared to the concert halls of cities. It is a relief not to comport with suit coats, ties and high fashion, but respect for the music is still key, for addicts of classical music follow form as well as expression, and visual distraction can rise to the level of the aural. Thumbs rifling the program page by page, pausing at real estate ads, can be as disruptive as sibilant whispers. Recent standouts of my own have included a young woman in front of me undoing and redoing her hair, twisting it into a bun bound by an elastic, then freeing it for another shot. Though unapproved photography is prohibited, abuse can go viral as individuals with phones snap soloists and families pass photos. When a patron whose lap between me and the orchestra stage was scrolling stiletto pumps, site after site, I suggested she pocket the device until intermission. After complying, she whispered to her right about the grouch to her left. Such infractions would be wimpy at a pop concert, and I realize that intolerance like mine has been captured by the one-liner about the stickler who growled to his neighbor, “Would you please stop breathing until the music is over.” Nonetheless, even in a tent, I hold that attendees might sit still and listen to the music.

Sunday dress rehearsals can be worse than concerts for undress behavior, for among other laxities they coincide with release of the Sunday New York Times. Empty bench space stretches for spreading out sections and pawing through favorites while rattling newsprint and spread-eagling the folds. When a particular Sunday included Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor, I skirted Times readers by settling in the side section nearest the basses, midway up the slant, with a view of the pianist’s face rather than his hands. I had discovered this concerto during my teens when I checked an LP out of a local library. I played it obsessively, entranced; it engraved itself in my neurons; it remained my favorite of the late romantic concertos; and some players consider it the most technically challenging. It was halfway through the first movement that I noticed a woman seated at the end of the bottom row, the spot nearest the stage, making weird movements. What now?

She was partly obscured by another figure and I leaned for a clearer look. Her head was graced with reddish hair that appeared to be dyed, pulled to one side by a golden clasp that created a bald spot that was surely unintended. Without seeing the face, I guessed the head to be in its 60s or 70s. It nodded forward and back, turning to either side. It moved in tandem with her upper body, which swiveled to the side, or both ways in alternation. Every movement that she made was precisely coordinated with the score, its phrases, dynamics and tempo. She sprung, with the pianist, the composer’s foreknown surprises. For orchestral tutti, she spread her arms as if conducting.

I stopped watching the pianist, a 25-year-old virtuoso, and shifted for a complete view. She clearly knew the music as well as I, and better, and the more I stared, the more her movements heightened the music’s expressiveness. Rather than conducting, she seemed to embody the music through spontaneous choreography. She and the music fused. Suddenly I realized I was deeper into the score than ever before. Dopamine surged. I was absorbing the concerto through my eyes as well as my ears, a fusion of senses that proceeded a step farther. During childhood I was shamed for still crying like a baby as I approached adolescence, a humiliation that instensified until, at age 12, my ability to produce tears switched off forever. Even after tragedy, my system doesn’t allow the catharsis of tears. Puddling over works of art, of course, is different from reeling over the blows of life, but even the strongest musical chills produced faint leakage. And at one liberating point, as I watched this unlikely figure embody this treasured music, my eyes flooded.

When the concerto ended at intermission, I wanted to approach the woman to ask whether she played or conducted the concerto, but at every rehearsal break I dash to the stand to be first in line, snaring coffees to share with a bassoonist friend with during his few free minutes. When the bell rang and my friend returned to duty, I dashed back inside and found the woman seated in the same spot, reading the program. I sped down to her and said, “Excuse me, but I saw you reacting to the Rachmaninoff and I wondered whether you play the concerto.”

She smiled, appeared eager to answer, and replied, “No, but my sister does.” I could see that she was trying to speed read the note for the next piece before it began, so I thanked her, left, and never saw her again.

Admittedly, a listener with the heaves might not wear well, and my personal experience was a one-time event. That exception behind me, I return to holding that audience members should shut up, sit still, and face the music.

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