Northern Sinfonia

The Sage, Gateshead

16 June 2009

Well, that was an interesting evening. Exceeded my expectations in some ways and not in others.

The audience was quite small, but larger than I was expecting (and apparently larger than yesterday's Schoenberg/Berg concert). I couldn't gauge how many were there because they were spread all over the auditorium (despite being urged to move forwards and occupy empty seats). Maybe the stalls were a third full, at a guess. And it was a very mixed audience with a sizeable percentage of young people (I am guessing students, as somebody commented that most of the University's music department was there).

There was a very brief introduction by somebody (I have no idea who) and the "programme" was a single typed sheet with almost no information about any of the pieces. I would have thought more effort could go into explaining what we were about to hear, as none of the pieces are exactly household names. A more comprehensive programme or a proper pre-concert talk. Or perhaps they thought that only hardened fans and experts would be attending and so explanations would be superfluous.

Dumbarton Oaks was a surprise. After being led to expect a very "classical" piece, I thought it sounded very modern. I can't imagine that kind of dynamic energy or... jaggedness... in a 200-year-old composition. Anyway, I thought it was very enjoyable.

Quartet for the End of Time was... in some ways, a disappointment. As the only piece of the evening I already knew (and loved), it was the part I was confident of enjoying even if the rest turned out to be rubbish. But something about the performance didn't really click with me. The musicians were superb, individually, and the performance wasn't actually bad, but it didn't sound quite right. Throughout the first movement the balance of the instruments seemed all wrong. Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus was taken at breakneck speed (comparatively, considering it's marked "infinitely slowly") and therefore didn't have the right impact. And so on.

Now I know every performance of a piece of music will sound different, and you could say it's just because I'm used to hearing a single recording of it. But when I heard it performed a year ago, I didn't notice a jarring difference from the recording I knew. Different, yes — more intense and affecting — but not jarringly different.

The problem with tonight's performance is that it had me focused on the differences rather than being immersed in the music.

Still it remains a superb piece of music and I didn't dislike the performance (in fact I probably sound more negative than I actually felt). It just left me vaguely dissatisfied.

4'33". Hmm. I have been virtually obsessed with this piece almost since I first heard about it. I absolutely love the concept. It's so... obvious... and yet also the most off-the-wall musical idea I've ever come across. But despite all I've read about it and all I've thought about it, I had no idea what it would actually be like to experience it in performance.

Well. Several things became obvious.

First, I have tinnitus. (I actually knew this already but it became deafeningly obvious.)

Second, I can easily sit in perfect silence for 4 minutes 33 seconds.

Third, very few other people have this ability.

As I sat in silence, the sound of tapping feet, coughing, even murmured conversations, grew louder and louder. Some of it may have been involuntary (and to be fair to the woman with the giggling fit, she did seem to be doing her best to stifle it) but by the end I was convinced that people were making noise on purpose, just for the sake of being heard.

And, to my surprise, I found the piece was provoking a deep emotional response in me: irritation. Seriously, irritation. (Not just me — a woman I spoke to afterwards used exactly the same word. On the other hand, the person I had gone with thought the people sounds were interesting.)

I know the whole point of the piece is to listen to the sounds around you, but seriously, the sounds made by a group of people are intensely irritating. Especially when I was (somewhat paradoxically) trying to listen to the silence instead.

Does this mean I have totally failed to grasp the meaning of the piece? No, I don't think so. I believe I understand the meaning, and I still find it a fascinating concept. I just didn't particularly enjoy the performance.

And I think The Sage Hall 1 was bad venue to perform it in. Read Cage's description of listening to the premier. He talks about hearing the wind outside, the rain on the roof. Hall 1 is perfectly acoustically isolated. You can't hear a thing except the noise originating within the hall itself — in other words, the people. In a different venue I might have heard the wind, the rain, the traffic, the air conditioning. In The Sage I just heard irritating people noises.

So, I'm immensely glad that I have finally experienced the piece, and I am fascinated by my reactions to it, but it's not something I want to repeat.

And finally, Zyklus. I didn't know the piece, but I've never actually enjoyed any Stockhausen I have heard (though I have always suspected that hearing it live would probably improve it).

Zyklus is a 15-minute percussion solo.

And it is superb. Nothing like a rock drum solo (which I was half expecting) but engrossing in its own way, and inventive enough that it didn't ever feel repetitive or that it had outstayed its welcome (which is the way I feel about some Stockhausen — don't mind it at first but bored after five minutes). In fact when the percussionist laid down his sticks I assumed it was the end of the "first movement", because it felt like only five minutes had passed. No... I looked at my watch and the whole 15 minutes had gone!

I don't think I will become an overnight Stockhausen fan, but I certainly wouldn't mind listening to that piece again.

Soooo, some of this 20th century stuff isn't all bad, is it?

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