Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian plays bass in an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

The {redacted}SO Receives Boos

sort of

1) a churlish, rude, or unmannerly person

1) a person who boos

Sir Mark Elder's talk preceding our performance of the Elgar Symphony no. 1, performed here for the first time in 33 years, was briefly accompanied by an odd noise, which I at first mistook for an audience member having some sort of physical problem, but which was soon revealed to be guttural evidence of extreme disgruntlement. The speech, laudable for its cogent advocacy of this neglected masterpiece as well as its relative brevity, was immediately followed by some lustily delivered “Boos” from a single, loudly dissatisfied customer somewhere high up in the balcony. We have been booed before, certainly, and I've commented on it, a couple times (here, and here, for anyone interested), but always at the end of a musical performance. This was a first, in my experience, where a conductor's remarks prompted a vocal display of displeasure.

Generally, I'm pro booing – the whole freedom of expression thing, you know. Also, it is heartening when someone is moved enough by what we do to break with the convention of offering polite applause to everything and instead chooses to express themselves forcefully, even in the negative. And finally, one of my happiest student memories comes from the Spoleto Festival, where, on my night off, I attended the Opera performance specifically to boo, along with many Italians I hasten to add, every aria sung by the awful tenor who had been bedeviling me all summer.

At an orchestral concert, the post performance boo contains enough ambiguity in its target – the composition, conductor, soloist, one or more of my colleagues, certainly never me! – to give everyone on stage some degree of plausible deniability. It is this ambiguity which also prevents many boos from ever materializing in the first place. Audience members have informed me that, although they might have objected to one aspect of a performance, they refrained from booing out of respect for the innocent. Also, when mixed in with the normal, perfunctory applause, the virulence of any one, or group of booers, is greatly attenuated. With everybody's opinions mixed together, the negative ones are largely drowned out.

The case in question here is a little different. Clearly, Maestro Elder was the sole target of the outburst, as the rest of us on stage were sitting there doing nothing. The content of his remarks, in spite of some florid language describing Elgar and his first symphony, seemed blandly inoffensive to me. However, I admit that, in the current climate where people resort to outrage first and ask questions later (know anyone like that?), I might have missed some seemly innocuous micro-aggression. Perhaps mention of the knighted composer's famous mustache caused some folliclearly challenged person's blood to boil, who knows. If the booer meant to voice a general opposition to pre-performance commentary, a better time to do it might have been the moment the hated microphone made its appearance. The boos, barely covered by the smattering of applause normal after most podium delivered remarks, created an atmosphere of nervous agitation in the auditorium completely at odds with the quiet serenity with which symphony begins, and so did more to mar the coming performance than add any useful commentary on what had come before. The time to boo the composition or the performance, of course, would have been after.

Maestro Elder, an earnest and likeable fellow, qualities it might shock the reader to discover are not representative of every podium climber, seemed briefly taken aback by the unexpected reaction to his preamble, but quickly put it behind him, literally, as he turned to face the orchestra. From there, the performance went on without incident, becoming yet one more in our improbable unbroken string of musical triumphs. After, one of my colleagues reminded me of another time when words rather than music received an audible negative reaction – a Beyond the Score presentation of the Shostakovitch 4th symphony back in 2006, where an audience member with pro Stalinist sympathies grew tired of hearing discouraging words said about the former USSR leader and started heckling. (“I didn't come to hear lies,” or something like it is part of what he called out.) It's possible the same gentleman returned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his patriotic defense of the motherland, although rumor had it he was declared persona non grata back in '06. The conductor for that performance? None other than Sir Mark Elder. Strange!


nocynic said...

My sense was that the boos came when he postulated that the slow movement of the Elgar was every bit as beautiful as the greatest Beethoven slow movements, which I personally regarded as a bit of a stretch. Really? The Cavatina from the late B Flat Quartet? The Ninth?
Not that Beethoven really needs any advocates. And, for that matter, Elder, for whom I share your regard, could have advocated more effectively for the slow movement by moving it along a bit more, at least in my view.

Nathan Cole said...

I remember that Shostakovich Beyond the Score well! Didn't some folks think that our management had planted the "boo-er" in order to make us seem cutting-edge?

Also, although not a boo, you can't forget the concert we played after Reagan died. The program, incidentally, had been changed some months before from a Mahler symphony to whatever it was we were playing instead. Our (orchestra) president took the stage and asked for a minute of silence. After about half that time, a patron (why are they always in the balconies?) shouted out, "You should be playing Mahler, AS PROMISED!"