Friday, June 8, 2007

Concert Disasters

Concerts are usually pretty well organized events, and concertgoers are, on the whole, a civilized bunch. The recent fracas at the Boston Pops was unusual for these days. It turned out to be an argument caused by someone talking during the music – a case of violence breaking out because someone was not sufficiently motionless, not sufficiently non-violent. On the other hand, if you go to an opera in La Scala, Milan, it would be a very poor evening if nobody got thoroughly booed at some point. So the calm expectations don't always quite work out.

I was once conducting Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony in Shreveport Louisiana, and the performance was going well. At the very end, immediately after the final drum stroke that ends the piece, the coup de grace as it were, all the lights went out. “My goodness” I thought, “we’ve got a hot guy on the lighting board tonight. That was terrific theater.” I loved it, and expected the lights to come on again any moment for us to take our bows. But they didn’t come on. A tornado had just rushed through town and taken all the power out, as well as a huge sign and part of the roof from the top of the hotel I was staying in. But in the concert hall the timing was so perfect that we didn’t miss a note! And after a while, we were able to take our bows by candlelight.

Mahler’s 6th Symphony calls for a “hammer” in the last movement. Nobody is quite sure what he meant; Mahler had a habit of writing for non-existent instruments. His third symphony calls for a “posthorn in B flat.” There really isn’t any such thing. It’s usually played on the flugelhorn, though legend has it that there is one single instrument somewhere in a basement in Vienna that is the real McCoy. Anyway, the “hammer” in the 6th is supposed to sound like a dead thud. It represents three hammer-blows of fate that destroy the hero, the first stunning him, the second causing him to collapse, only slowly recovering, then the third finally destroying him utterly, after which the music ends in utter bleakness. (Classical music is so optimistic.) I conducted a performance where the inventive percussionists came up with a huge round log, a cross-section of a giant oak tree, about 4 feet in diameter and 2 feet thick. This was clearly visible up on the stage, and they hit it with a sledge-hammer. Not only did this make a great thud, and cause the stage floor to shake, giving the entire orchestra a sense of truly participating in the drama, but it looked wonderful too, with the percussionist raising the hammer high above his head as the blow was about to come. We practiced and practiced, and the player who was delivering these dreaded death-inducing blows of fate was having a fabulous time. Grins all over his face. Unfortunately, the oak tree must have had enough, because in the actual performance, as he gave the final fatal blow with the sledge hammer, the oak tree shattered, and largish pieces of wood flew up into the air, causing players and audience alike to duck. Not only that, but in its death throes, the wood made more of a squvish than a boom. It was also hilarious, which was not exactly what we were after.

I remember outdoor concerts in New Orleans, where we were all dripping with sweat under a shelter that was also the home a screech owl, offering its loud alternative entertainment while we were playing.

I’ve done a performance of the St. Matthew Passion where “Jesus” was accused of domestic violence, giving rise to a great comment from a horn player, one that I have never forgotten: “My word, God does put talent in the darndest places!”. I’ve had a violinist escorted out of a rehearsal by two armed police officers. Light bulbs have shattered and showered players with hot splinters of glass.

I once even fell asleep while conducting. I had had no sleep for about three days, as I was in the same week composing music for an outdoor production of King Lear, and all the rehearsals with lighting cues, obviously, had to take place at night, and usually didn’t end till 5:00 am. Then I had to drive 150 miles for a concert on a sleepy, warm, Sunday afternoon. There was a railing round the podium, and the piece was in three similar and rather dull movements. I dreamt I was pushing sausages in and out of an oven, bumped into the railing and woke up to find that I was conducting.

I assure you that only happened once, and nowadays I usually find concerts that I am conducting myself interesting enough to keep me awake. But these are live concerts that we shall be giving around Vermont. They are real life, and so you never know quite what will happen. Maybe something unexpectedly wonderful!

Andrew Massey - conductor

You can find details of the amazingly safe and trouble free concerts with this link.