Concert programming

My review of last month’s Radius concert at the Purcell Room has just been accepted for publication in Musical Opinion. It won’t be out until the January issue,  but I wanted to pick up some overspill here.

Firstly, John Reid’s playing of Berg’s opus 1 Piano Sonata was stunning. I ran out of space in my short review to really expand on why I thought it was so good, but the main thing I got was a sense of Berg’s full spectrum tonal palette, and his skill in slipping from one of its regions to another. Reid gave the music quite a lot of space, so it was possible to follow the intricate voice-leading and thus follow the logic of Berg’s tonal-atonal transitions. The final pages were breathtaking.

More generally, I thought this was the best-programmed Radius gig I’ve seen. I love the Boulez, Cage, Vivier and Xenakis rarities that have been a feature of their Wigmore Hall concerts, but I’m always a little anxious that the concert doesn’t always hang together as a whole. In this instance, however, Tim Benjamin’s Mrs Lazarus was well complemented by the Berg and Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony.

Should programming matter that much? I’m beginning to notice it when it does. Or perhaps it’s not programming so much as setting. What does bother me is when the memory of one work, still being processed and pieced together, is wiped over by beginning of the next piece. When the second piece perfectly complements the first, this is less of a problem, but that’s a difficult match to pull off. Better, perhaps, is to set each piece in enough space so that those memories can be processed before one’s attention is back in demand. It’s not just a question of silence either side of a piece, although that helps a lot. It’s also something to do with the environment in which the music is being heard, the priorities of the audience (listening to, or being seen), the building, and so on. The Wigmore Hall, more than some venues, conditions a certain kind of listening: the seats are quite low in relation to the stage, and aren’t raked,; the acoustic is sound-studio flawless; the architecture and decor all point towards a certain style, set of values and historical moment. It’s a bit like being inside a Muse’s womb: there’s no real life in there, and what is in there has been genetically pre-programmed.

On the other hand, I invariably enjoy concerts in churches more. They’re cold, the seats are hard and creaky, you can hear the street outside and the lighting is uneven. Not womb-like, they’re more like a translucent box in which art and real life (two sides of the same coin after all) can interpenetrate. And church architecture – particularly of the Hawksmoor/neo-classical variety that you get all over central London – is more of a blank slate. Yes, it expresses a number of things like power, majesty, and a certain moral code. But those things are generalised enough to applicable in new historical contexts. The architecture of the Wigmore (and I’m sorry for picking on it like this) speaks more specifically and is more historically reified.

Funny, hip advocates for classical music complain that concert halls are too much like churches, and here I am saying that they don’t go far enough.

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