JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Bartók

This afternoon I attended a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I don’t have a subscription this year, so this was the first concert I went to this season. It was a mixed bag.

The last few years that I had a subscription I had box seats that were in the Second Tier behind the orchestra. While this distorted the sound very slightly, it did give me a view of the conductor’s face and I could see most of the players fairly close up. And as I was reminded today as I took my seat in the Orchestra section, there was nobody behind me to cough all the way through the performance.

A few minutes before the performance as the Philadelphia Orchestra is warming up

The first work was one of my favorites by one of my favorite composers, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. When I came to Philadelphia in 1980, one of my very first concerts featured Eugene Ormandy conducting that work (a treasured memory), and I’ve heard it played at least a couple times since, most recently in 2014 under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. Today Salonen gave it another terrific performance; I just wish the coughers could have held off just a little bit longer to let the final pianissimo notes (marked ppp in the score) sound without competition. The perils of the live performance.

After intermission came two works by Béla Bartók. I have to confess, as far as I’m concerned, Bartók’s works can be divided into the Concerto for Orchestra and everything else.

I have always thought that Bartók wrote the Concerto for Orchestra in a deliberately easily accessible style, and I think he’s pandering to the audience, so I’ve never really been able to love it like so many others do. Yes, a performance can be enjoyable. But it’s a piece I tire of very easily.

Then there’s everything else.

For example, today’s pieces, the Viola Concerto, performed by Choon-Jin Chang, and the Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin.

They just don’t sound like music to me.

Let me explain.

Of course, they are music. I’m using a very loose definition when I say they don’t sound like music. What I mean is as far as I’m concerned, if the orchestra had played a bunch of musical notes that had been randomly generated by a computer instead of the notes that Bartók presumably painstakingly notated on his score, I feel I would not have been able to tell the difference. There just didn’t seem to be any coherence or logic to the series of notes. And I’ve listened to these pieces in advance, in the case of the concerto, many times.

And it’s not just these pieces. I’ve tried listening to his opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, several times in several different recordings, and I attended the concert performance a couple years ago that Yannick conducted with the Philadelphians. That opera leaves me cold.

I’ve listened to Bartók’s string quartets, his second Violin Concerto, his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and a number of other pieces. Many times.

The only works of his that sound like music are the third movement of the Viola Concerto and the opening of the second Violin Concerto. Everything else sounds like random gibberish to me.

I guess I have to conclude that Bartók’s music is just not for me.

The Dinosaur Place

Dinosaur Hall in the Academy of Natural Sciences

So I was walking along the Parkway this morning on my way to the Reading Terminal Market when a fellow wearing a Ron Paul cap asked:

"Do you know the way to the dinosaur place?"

I assumed he meant the natural history building, but I couldn't even remember the name of Philadelphia's natural history museum; haven't been there in over ten years. But I knew it was somewhere along the Parkway, near the Franklin Institute.

"See that building straight ahead?" I asked him. "That's the Franklin Institute. The dinosaur place is near there on the left." And he thanked me and was on his way.

When I had the chance to look it up later, it turned out I was pretty close and he should have had no trouble finding it. Oh, and it's called the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Later, on my way back from the market, I came upon a woman standing at a curb waiting for the light to change. Before I could warn her, a car came barreling down the street, its left wheels strategically aimed at the water puddle directly in front of her, and she was drenched from head to foot. I had miscalculated too as the splash caught me just below the knees. It was a bigger puddle than I had expected.

She jumped back, but not far enough, as a second car rolled along and gave her a another helping of street water.

"They'll always find a way to get you," I said.

That they do. Say what you will about Philly drivers, when it comes to water puddles, they seldom miss.

A different car and a different puddle..

The Pop-up Concert

The Philadelphia Orchestra's opening night concert at Carnegie Hall was cancelled because of a stagehand strike, so Yannick Nézet-Séguin brought his musicians back to Philly for an informal, free concert at the Kimmel Center. 

The festivities began in the lobby where folks were invited to conduct some orchestra musicians in the opening bars of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with the winner to have the chance to conduct the full orchestra during the actual concert.

One of the people trying out to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra

The concert itself was a subset of the program for Carnegie Hall, with things like Chaikovsky's Marche Slav and Ravel's Bolero. The winner of the conducting contest (pictured above) got to perform the rare and challenging William Tell Overture by Rossini.

And there was even an encore, Chaikovsky's Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. Yannick encouraged the audience to record it and send it to social network sites. 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin played Chaikovsky's Polonaise from Eugene Onegin as an encore at the Philadelphia Orchestra Pop-Up Concert

I decided to sit behind the orchestra so I could watch Nézet-Séguin's face as he conducted, and I discovered that I really like that location. The balance of the sound is a bit odd as you hear less of the cellos and basses, but otherwise the sound is terrific. I think I'll search out those seats in the future.

This photo was taken before the Pop-up concert started, but by the end nearly every seat was filled. 

Perils of the Parkway

I've mostly enjoyed these last few months living near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It's a great central location in Center City, only a 15 minute walk to the Reading Terminal Market, etc.

Fireworks over the Art Museum during the Independence Day celebrations

During the Independence Day celebrations, I even had a nice view of the fireworks right from my window.

But I've been looking forward to a quiet Labor Day holiday. Unlike Independence Day, Philadelphia has no special connection to Labor Day, so many of the inhabitants spend the weekend down at the shore, leaving the city a virtual ghost town. 

For some reason ($$$, no doubt) Budweiser is trying to change that. Apparently this is the second year that they've sponsored the Made Deaf in America festival, the object of which seems to be to hasten the hearing loss of anyone who gets anywhere near the Parkway. Perhaps deaf people drink more Bud?

According to the publicity, they've invited the best musical groups to perform. Someone named JZ picked each one.

Now there's a problem right off the bat. Never trust anyone who goes by initials. I mean, you don't see me going around calling myself JT---

Uh, never mind.

Anyway I question the selection of performing bands. Certainly not the best. There's no Beatles, for one thing. Not even any second tier groups like the Rolling Stones or The Band. Maybe they had better things to do. 

Then there's some group called Bee-Yawns, or Bay-Yahns, something like that. Never heard of them. 

Now I wouldn't much mind this whole event, except-- 

--except my window faces the Art Museum, and although the nearest loudspeakers are at least four or five blocks away (roughly half a mile), I can hear the damned thumping bass in my apartment. <sigh>

I ran into one of my neighbors in the elevator yesterday after the "festivities" had started and asked if he could hear the music in his unit (which faces in a different direction). No, he couldn't, but he was planning to go out there shortly. He was surprised (maybe even impressed?) that I could hear the music in my place.

Mack's Ultra Ear Plugs, or Sleep Savers as I think of them

Anyway, I did find a solution. Mack's Ultra Ear Plugs, which reduce the noise by 32 decibels. That was enough to let me get a good night's sleep. 

I ran into my neighbor again this morning and told him that the ear plugs had worked. He didn't get home until after midnight, as he had stayed to hear the group Beyoncé--he pronounced it with three syllables, which seems a bit affected to me, but never mind.

"How was it?" I asked. 

 "Loud--and I wasn't even that close." I could have told him that.

Anyway, I understand one of the purposes of this noise fest is to keep folks in the city for Labor Day. I think next year I'll make plans to visit Canada or some other cool spot for the weekend.