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Next Time, Ravel On Tabla

I went to see Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer perform with the Honolulu Symphony this weekend. I had heard an interview with Zakir Hussain about the project on PRI’s The World a week or so earlier and was intrigued by the description of the project. (There is another interview and video here. Scroll down a little.) When I saw they were coming to a concert hall near me, I hopped on the computer to order tickets.

It was really a wonderful performance and a lot of fun. There were some encounters I had and some comments I overheard that were illuminating to me. Most of them weren’t really about the Honolulu Symphony in particular. From what I have heard they are pretty much industry wide practices.

Actually, the first incident I never expected and I don’t think had any reflection on the symphony or industry at all. The first half of the program was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90. Apparently there was more than just coughing going on during the piece because as soon as I exited the door into the side hall, I walked into two guys arguing. One suggested they take it outside and the other moved outside. The first guy’s girlfriend restrained him from going outside. I don’t know how that developed so quickly except the second guy said something about having a skin condition so maybe he was scratching a lot during the performance.

Maybe Mendelssohn just inspires violence. That final movement was played a little more energetically than I anticipated.

Anyway, having avoided a scuffle, I made my way to the Italian ice line. A group near me was talking about the performance and one person wondered where Messrs. Fleck, Hussain and Meyer were. He was a Fleck fan and came specifically to see him perform. From the way he spoke, he thought he was coming to a Bela Fleck concert where the symphony was contracted to back him rather than Fleck being the symphony’s invited performer.

Had you visited the website, you might get the impression the guest artists were performing first from the way the information was ordered. (see below)

fleck screen grab

A woman in the party noted the program listed the Mendelssohn first but she thought the trio would be participating in that piece.

I have to confess made similar assumptions. Even though the order in the program was reversed from the website, the trio’s names were listed so prominently, for a moment I thought maybe they were playing in the Mendelssohn. Then I began to wonder if there had been enough time for them to rehearse with the symphony to do a credible job. (Well, if I am really being truthful, I thought they were going to be playing Ravel. If you notice there is a Ravel quote on the screen capture above I had it in my head I might get to hear Bolero interpreted on the tabla, banjo and double base. You gotta admit that could be cool. )

Then I remembered something I had read on a blog this past spring/summer. I thought it was either an entry or a comment on one of my Inside the Arts compadres blogs, but I couldn’t find it. (Happily link to it if someone points it out.) In any case, someone wrote something to the effect that the common practice of Pops concerts was to make you sit through classical to get to the featured pops artist.

In any case, the people I was standing near didn’t sound as if they felt they had been hoodwinked, but did sound a little mystified about the experience. I am sure their concerns were forgotten in the second half of the evening. I am hardly an expert on the music, but I found the piece Meyer wrote for their three instruments very engaging. They played a couple more pieces, did their bows and then came back for four encores.

It was a conversation I overheard walking out to the parking lot that I hoped was not widely held. The people behind me pondered if the orchestra musicians might be angry about the recent financial difficulties because they were so stiff and emotionless compared to the guest artists which one woman described as looking as if they were having fun. One of her companions suggested the orchestra musicians were probably required to maintain a discipline like soldiers.

I imagine that isn’t too far from the truth. Bela Fleck nodded his head and mouthed the tabla beats as Hussain played and exchanged a look with Meyer that seemed to say “he is kicking butt.” Hussain grooved out while Fleck was playing. (Meyer was profile to me so I couldn’t see what he was doing as well.) Having an entire orchestra exhibiting their individual reactions to a performance is likely to get distracting if the focus is supposed to be on the music.

During the performance, I had some interesting conversations with the woman next to me. I think she thought I had some sort of expertise in classical music or at least the attendance experience because I correctly guessed that the people lined awkwardly along the edge of the stage and the walls of the seating area were there to perform “The Star Spangled Banner.”

She told me the best place to sleep was in the orchestra hall. I suggested that it was an expensive undertaking to spend so much only to sleep and it might be better to buy music. She told me she could never experience the quality she was that night because she didn’t have an expensive stereo system.

I don’t know that she actually slept, but she did spend the first half with her eyes closed and her hand across them. I can’t imagine she comprises a significant untapped niche for orchestras. For me the encounter just proved that we can never entirely understand the nuances that provide people with enjoyment while attending events.

Near the end of the performance, everyone rose to give Messrs. Fleck, Hussain and Meyer a standing ovation. I didn’t stand because I was pretty sure they weren’t done yet and had held some great stuff in reserve. My new friend turned and asked, “Wasn’t that good enough for you to stand?” When they were done, and don’t get me wrong they did confirm my suspicions, I felt a little obligated by her earlier question to stand and make a comment that now I was ready to stand.

I felt a little insincere doing it. I generally have no problem keeping my seat and clapping enthusiastically while the world rises around me. But I have never had anyone looking to me for leadership and confirmation. In retrospect, I am not sure if they deserved it or I just succumbed to the pressure.

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3 Responses to Next Time, Ravel On Tabla

  1. Drew McManus September 28, 2009 at 4:34 am #

    Great article Joe, very sincere and a useful perspective on the whole issue of the ubiquitous standing ovation. It’s a sticky situation but ultimately, performing arts organizations will benefit most from audiences that have confidence in their ability to offer appropriate feedback.

  2. Jaime Herrera September 30, 2009 at 4:53 am #

    Someone once said that the standing ovation was an expression by the audience validating the fact that their money had been well spent. I hate standing ovations – they are so commonplace they have now become menaningless. In fact, It’s been years that I have been to a concert where there was no standing ovation. Stamp Out Standing Ovations. Once a year is more than enough.

    • Joe September 30, 2009 at 8:00 am #

      @Jaime Herrera, exactly! I rarely stand. I am also rarely excited by anything I hear played by a symphony. Mostly through ignorance and lack of exposure, I’m sure. I was excited by this experience though and at least that is a good sign post on the road to a standing ovation.

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