Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hall half full, glass half empty?

You know the old trope about optimism/pessimism. (No, this post is not about the general election or Brexit.) The glass is half full - or half empty? Which are you?

I'm tending, these days, towards the enjoy-what-you've-got-while-it's-there attitude. I shall drain my half-glass to the last drop - and if I can get a refill, great.

But the same thing can sometimes apply to concert halls. What if you are the soloist who walks into a big auditorium and sees a sea of empty chairs alongside the half that are occupied?

I'm wondering this because I recently went to a recital so disappointing that I didn't want to review it (no, I won't say who it was). The hall was half full. Or, if you prefer, half empty. Perhaps it was an awkward day, or too close to a nasty event that was in the news, but attendance wasn't good. Did this put off our performer?

Hedge backwards

The atmosphere was singularly odd from the start. One way or another, he seemed curt, uncommunicative and peculiarly lackadaisical. He walked on looking as if he'd just got out of bed, or been dragged backwards through the proverbial hedge. He then pressed down the pedal and bowled off at the speed of a sound that didn't match the work he was playing. His tone was shallow, hard and lacking in colour or character. A phone went off towards the end of one piece and my pal and I exchanged glances, in case it was the composer calling to say "Oi, mate, slow down a bit, innit". And then we had to listen to him do to a glorious piece of Bartók the musical equivalent of what the Russians did to Budapest in 1956.

Of course, we can't know for sure what is going on behind such a strange performance. It could be that something deeply upsetting had just happened to him. Maybe he wasn't well, or suffers from devastating stage fright. Perhaps he'd been caught in transport chaos, or had jet-lag, overslept and missed the alarm clock and really had just got out of bed. Yet I wonder how many people in that hall - and it was a lot of people, even if only at half capacity - might have found themselves reflecting that they felt as if this performer didn't want to be there and couldn't be bothered playing his best to so small an audience?

Speak up!

There are different ways artists could handle a difficult evening in a concert hall. They might make an amusing little spoken introduction explaining that they've had to take antihistamines that have fried their brain, therefore the performance might be a bit off. That would at least establish a friendly connection. Or they could change the programme and introduce it with an informal and personal explanation (except our guy had changed his already, without explanation or, as far as I could tell, any logical planning detectable in the sequence of pieces).

If someone is perfectly well, though, and not suffering a situation that can be communicated and then healed by the music, there's a responsibility that comes with presence on a platform that has been graced in the past by the likes of Richter and Gilels. The hall may only be half full, but people have bought tickets, invested time, effort and goodwill in attendance and, mate, they are on your side. They want to hear you play some good music wonderfully. It's your job to deliver. Because if you make them feel - however unintentionally - that you don't want to be there, you hold them in contempt and you really don't give a damn, they're not going to come back for more next time. We want to have sympathy for someone who has a great reputation but is off form on this occasion. We want him to be OK. But it's got to be a two-way process.

I can't remember the last time I didn't stay for the second half of a recital. But on this occasion we decided at half time that we'd got the idea and needed a drink. The hall's loss was Pizza Express's gain.

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