It has been a long time since I've been to the symphony. And even longer since I've been to the symphony in Prague (ok, fine, so I have only been to the symphony in Prague one other time, but it sounded so worldly). We're talking about the Symphony here. Not Tanglewood. I was at Tanglewood last summer but that was different. The whole "lie under the stars listening to Mozart" thing just isn't the same. Why? Because: 1) there are snacks, 2) you are under the stars, 3) you can surf the web while listening to the orchestra (so long as you type quietly and dim your screen), and 4) there are snacks. The symphony, on the other hand, is all about being at the symphony. It is all about wearing a bow tie and listing attentively and counting the movements so you don't clap at the wrong time.
Most of all, the symphony is about the music. Which is all well and good when the music is good. But when the symphony is all about the music and the music is, in fact, bad, well, then, the symphony is all about badness. And then all that is left is the bow tie and counting movements. If you have ever tried to keep track of the number of movements in a truly bad piece of music, you know that it is nearly impossible. Frankly, no one can count that slowly. It is simple to count regularly occurring events (so long as they do not occur too quickly). But the longer the events and the less regular they are, the harder it is to keep track. Which is why it is impossible to keep count of horrific music. Truly bad music has interminable movements that are, to put it kindly, irregular. Keeping track of the crappy movements requires one of those clickers you see the ticket takers using at the baseball game. I'll have to remember to bring one next time I go to the symphony. With each upswing of the baton and the start of a movement, "click!" No matter how interminable or irregular the movements, I will always be able to glance down at my silver symphometer and know precisely where I am in the sonata.
It would be even better if you could use the clicker to count down. At the start of each piece you could preset your symphometer to the total number of movements and have each "click" subtract a movement. Rather than clicking at the upswing of the baton, you could simply click every time the conductor cut the orchestra off.
Crescendo. Crescendo. Big chord. Wild gesticulation. Silence. Click.
And when the symphometer read "0" you would know to applaud madly -- not out of appreciation for the piece just concluded, but out of joy at its conclusion. Had it been mercifully short? No chance. But was it thankfully over? Yes. Finally.
I fear I may be sounding a bit negative about the symphony. That is not my intention. Although I will admit that my recounting of the evenings festivities is somewhat colored by the absolutely vomitous piece of music through which I had to suffer. It was the posthumous world premier of a song cycle in Czech that almost assuredly was the story of someone being tortured, or perhaps about Czech cuisine. The composer -- who will go unnamed because there was no way I was wasting precious gray matter to remember his name -- had a great love of all things percussive but seemed to hate violinists. Despite violins being the mainstay of pretty much every great symphonic work in, say, forever, these poor Czech violinists were largely stage dressing, periodically plucking out some feeble little pizzicato nothing because, as you may recall, the composer preferred striking things to actually playing them.
If the music were not sufficiently grating, the song cycle was narrated by an Actress. Not an "actress." An "Actress." A thespian. Her enunciation was so precise, one feared her lips were going to bleed. Actually, come to think of it, how do I know if her diction was good. She was speaking Czech -- a fittingly percussive and grating language for said narration. If I cared enough, I might have gone home and looked up the word "buch" in Czech. I suspect it meant "book" and the cycle seemed to revolve around this book in some way or other, thus requiring the narrator to say book a great deal. I might have intuited more of the Czech narration had I not been working so desperately hard at keeping count of the movements. I did quite well until the 6h or 7th movement, during which time I had an outer-body experience that involved beating the narrator on the head and neck with a "buch." As the endorphins rose in my system at the thought of giving the narrator my "feedback" on her musical interlude, I lost count. Worse yet, I knew it. I knew I had lost count. Which left me at the mercy of all the other movement counters. I could only hope that they were less distracted by the percussive Czech enunciation than I (which was a good bet seeing as, by and large, they were, in fact, Czech themselves). I was at their mercy and would have to clap when they clapped.
I looked around in hopes of spotting someone with a symphometer -- he I could trust to get the count right. No luck. I would have to go with the wisdom of the crowds. I would applaud only when a majority of the Czech citizenry applauded. And so, as each movement came to an end, I would sit in pre-rhapsodic anticipation, awaiting the joyful applause of relief that comes only when something truly fetid at long last abates. As I am here to tell the tale, that final movement did ultimately come. But minutes have ne'er stretched to hours like the measures of those final movements.
Bravo. Bravo. Thou art complete. Oh merciful intermission. How I have longed for your cold long drink in the glow of rebirth.
My reward for surviving this colossal piece of symphonic refuse? One of the greatest pieces of music ever written -- Beethoven's Eroica. As intermission drew to a close and people made their way back to their seats, it became clear that the first piece of music had driven away a full half of the Prague audience. Hadn't they looked at the program. Beethoven's 3rd should be enough to get anyone back, no matter how battered and beaten they may be from the first half of the program.
Even if the Prague audience had not read the program, they should have known to return. The First Law of Symphonic Programming requires an inverse relationship between the putrescence of the first half of the program and the beauty of the second. The more putrid the first, the more beautiful the second. If the first half of the concert is Schoenberg, after the intermission you can count on Mozart. If the first piece of the concert is Webern, look for a Bach concerto to follow. And never the other way around. The tripe must always come before the trifle. Otherwise, honestly, who would stick around for the second half? Masochists and neophytes. Everyone else would know to promptly run away before the memories of a truly fabulous piece of music had been erased with cacophony and dissonance.
And the Eroica is indeed a fabulous piece of music. Beethoven did not slight any one section of the orchestra -- he wrote beautifully for each and every instrument. The string players didn't just look relieved, they looked grateful. And the percussionists were more than willing to share the spotlight in the name of music worth playing (and, frankly, percussionists are not exactly the "after you" types). Rather than fighting a head bob as I dozed off in the first half, the second half of the concert was punctuated by a bouncing head and tapping foot. I "learned" from my own father, with whom I enjoy classical music over the years, that it is perfectly fine to be moved by the music. Truly great classical music induces involuntary muscle reaction -- conducting hands, rhythmic gesticulation, eyebrow raising. A fabulous symphony can no more be enjoyed motionless than can a dixieland jazz concert.
That said, It is probably fair to note that not everyone would agree with the Hornik patriarch rules of classical music consumption. There are those among us who might view it as distracting to sit next to a gesticulating concert-goer. And among those who might find it distracting might be the Hornik family matriarchs. Just as Grisha Hornik annoyed Rhea Hornik with his gesticulation, and Gerry Hornik annoyed (or rather, continues to annoy) Betsy Hornik with his gesticulation, I, David Hornik, annoyed Pamela Hornik with my own. It is my birthright. I come to my armchair conducting honestly.
For the duration of the concert, I assisted in conducting the Prague Symphony -- I swayed and coaxed and urged the symphony through its paces, all the while keeping count. As Beethoven's Third came to a close. One does not lose count for Beethoven! It would be far too disrespectful. Symphometer or no symphometer, as I flailed about enjoying one of the greatest symphonies ever written, a quiet little voice ran in the back of my head (1, 1, 1, 1, 1 . . . 2, 2, 2, 2 . . . 3, 3, 3 . . . 4, 4, 4, 4, 4 . . . applaud!). Admittedly, it is not quite as challenging or as complex as counting cards. But the stakes are nearly as high. There is nothing more embarrassing than vigorously applauding in what should be the silence between the third and fourth movements of the Eroica. What do you take me for? Some sort of Neanderthal?
And so with the conclusion of Beethoven's Third, we headed home, mission accomplished. Having committed a good three hours to the symphony, I could feel awfully darn good about myself. Not only had I gotten to publicly and conspicuously enjoy a piece of classical music that is widely acknowledged by others as classical music you should publicly and conspicuously enjoy, I was also able to smugly deride a foreign composer's crowning musical achievement because, as we all know, I once played the violin. I look forward to my next trip to Europe when, with any luck, I will be able to barely tolerate a great opera or internationally acclaimed dance troupe. It is so worth the twelve hour flight.