Audience Service

I am a fan of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I know that at times I can sound ambivalent about this, but that’s more a reflection of the generally declining state of Classical Music as a cultural compass. In reality, I have no ambivalence about the PSO. I think they are consistently one of the top bands in the country, and it’s readily apparent at the shows that they have a strong connection with the audience and the community.

These days the majority of my contact with the orchestra has been at various kids concerts they do for the local schools and as part of their “Fiddlesticks” series. You get a true measure of the professionalism of the organization when you can observe them playing their hearts out for an audience that is mostly trying to escape their seats and crawl around on the floor.

On the other hand, maybe not. Often, even the adult audience will demand a performance from the orchestra that goes beyond the pale. In the language of the incomparable Paul Sherwen, the musicians can be called upon to dig deep into their reserves of courage and find a way to endure their suffering. OK, that’s a slightly melodramatic way to put it, but consider the concert I went to the week before last.

It started out with a rousing performance of the Beethoven 8th Symphony. This is the second time in a few years that the PSO has surprised me with a great performance of one of the even symphonies, which everyone knows are worse than the more important odd-numbered ones. But I could not escape the evidence. I kept grinning with delight as I heard little details and snippets that I had always somehow missed. We went into the intermission feeling good.

The second piece of the show was the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole. This is a typical showcase for the virtuoso soloist. In this performance, the soloist was the regular concertmaster, Andres Cardenes, who the night before had apparently lost his place in the final movement. This added drama to the performance (“will he make it?!?”) but not enough to keep my attention. I should study that piece more in case they play it again. It always pays to know the music before you go to the show.

Before I talk about the last piece in the show, I will indulge in a short digression. Several years ago the PSO did a series of pre-concert lectures where a guy would talk about the music about to be played so you knew what was coming (see above). Once in a while they would also bring out someone from the orchestra to provide extra insight about this or that. I went to a few of these and always enjoyed them, but I never had the guts to ask the question I was really interested in: “What’s the piece you hate playing the most?” Everyone must have something that they really just despise playing. But they are professionals, so they must.

I think I now know at least one answer to that question. It was the final piece that they played during the concert on 2/7/2009: Bolero. If you are of a certain age, you probably know this piece as the music that played behind Dudley Moore while he was getting it on with Bo Derek. And really, let’s be honest, the only way to make this piece interesting would be to put Bo Derek in front of it.

If you can’t remember what it’s like, let me remind you. The piece starts out with a single melody and a single march rhythm on the snare. This melody (and drum pattern) repeat approximately 15,768 times over the next 13 minutes or so and the only two things really change during the entire torturous exercise:

1. The instruments that play the melody.

and

2. The volume. Which gets louder.

Just when you think your entire brain is going to melt from the boredom the piece finally modulates a bit and then ends in a flurry of horn bleating.

As much as you might suffer while listening to this piece, your plight is insignificant compared to what the muscians are going through. The poor bastard on snare has nothing to do for thirteen minutes but tap out that endlessly repeating rhythm. The melody spends most of the first part of the piece bouncing around the wind instruments. This leaves the strings to either sit in the chairs and count, or to pluck or strum the occasional completely inaudible pizzicato. I actually saw the entire violin section visibly sigh in unison as it became their turn to join the deathmarch to the end of the concert. Even when they finally got to pick up their bows, all they were given to do is play one or two of the same boring patterns louder and louder for the next seven minutes. It was excrutiating.

I conclude, therefore, that the most hated orchestral work in the canon, at least for string players, is Bolero. My curiosity, for now, is sated.

As a final note, the audience reaction to this piece was the strongest of the whole show. They reflexively bounced up out of their seats and started hooping and hollering, the bravos echoing into the back of the hall for a good five minutes. Never let it be said that the PSO does not suffer for your benefit. This was truly audience service at its best.