Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Phoenician audience isn't quite as naïve as I thought.

Before tonight, my last trip up to Phoenix's Symphony Hall was for Ning Kam as featured soloist followed by the
orchestra's rendition of the Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. Not only is that a poor choice for an orchestra of that size, but the performance was extremely ragged for a full-time, professional orchestra. Yet the audience was on its feet at the end. I may have been the only one still in my seat. It was as though they were applauding Ravel the colorist or the grandiosity of Mussorgsky's final movement or even hearing such a familiar work live, in their own city. The performance itself wasn't worthy of a standing ovation, and the piece is so established in the Romantic canon that the one cannot or oughtn't applaud the composition.

Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances received top billing tonight, but the real reason to go--and certainly the reason I drove all the way from Tucson!--was Time for Three and the concerto "4-3" composed for them by Jennifer Higdon. I have a mixed opinion of Higdon as composer but this work--a bluegrass hallucination of sorts, with nonstandard technique and at times nearly absent development in the first movement followed by a thrilling blitz of fiddle and bass and almost playful exchanges with the orchestra in the second--is a standout, proof that modern art music can be simultaneously adventurous and fun. (Look for a full review of the performance on Associated Content soon.) And at the end, I was one of the first to stand and applaud. But maybe a third of the audience, including many of the older attendees, remained seated and some didn't applaud. No boos, but the disapproval could be felt. One man of about eighty turned to the person next to him, asked, "you liked that?", and gave a thumbs-down with a surprisingly nimble flourish.

Signs of consciousness in the audience! I disagree with their opinion, but am pleased to see that Phoenicians don't elevate everything to the status of greatness. Judgement, taste, and controversy are both signs of and contributors to the health of the fine arts. However, at the end, there was a near-unanimous standing ovation for the Rachmaninoff. The performance was far better than last November's poorly-xeroxed Pictures, but nothing special. I know now that the Symphony Hall attendees aren't zombies; their standards are a different matter.

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