Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008


Never in my life have I received such treatment. They threw an apple at me!
Well, watermelons are out of season.

Lasspari and Otis B Driftwood
(The Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera)


Starting softly and getting louder, the gentleman got in three boos before the rest of the audience knew the piece had finished. Definitely not one of our fans who calls out Bravoooooo, these were unquestionably expressions of displeasure. But whether directed at the Lutoslawsky 4th symphony or our rendition of it under Haitink’s baton, nobody could tell. A brief scan of the composer’s biography makes me wonder if our pro Stalin fan (yes we have one) had returned.

I don’t know if it comes as a surprise or not, but the general reaction among orchestra members to audience boos isn’t very disapproving. Perhaps this comes from a sense of smugness about our self worth and the ability for each of us singly to fall back on the belief that the composer, conductor, soloist, or somebody else, is the true object of displeasure. But there is also a sense of relief that at least somebody out there cares enough to go against the grain and express themselves. One of the more disheartening things about this profession can be to see obvious signs of displeasure among audience members during the performance (i.e. yawning, sleeping, the rolling of eyes, head buried in the program or other reading material, or the ubiquitous 20th century music scowl) only to receive the same polite applause at the conclusion. Was that a standing ovation, or were those people merely donning their coats and shrugging? (I once saw a man sleep soundly through a piece only to jump to his feet and applaud.) At least a good hearty Boo shows somebody had an honest opinion.

We’ve had few memorable ones during my time here. The Enescu Symphony (sorry, can’t remember which one) ends conclusively. So when we performed it at the University of (the state in which the city I work in is located) the gentleman who got his boo off (say that fast three times: very funny) a split second before the rest of the audience erupted deserves special commendation. He (booing seems to be a male-dominated activity) obviously sat on the edge of his seat for a long time waiting for his big chance. Probably most famously, a local member of the 4th estate loudly booed the son of a prominent dissident for a lackluster reading of the Grieg piano concerto. That demonstration involved the spontaneous conversion of the program book into confetti.


Brad said...

On the other hand, I think audience members that perhaps don't particularly like a performance or the piece(s) played still want to remain respectful of the musicians on stage that they like and admire regardless of their feelings on a given night.

For example, there have been times when I expressed and discussed my displeasure or lack of understanding of aspects of a concert with friends, etc, after attending a concert given by a certain midwestern orchestra, but I wouldn't boo the performers on stage, unless I thought they were intentionally and blatantly not striving to deliver a good performance.

If I decided to boo or throw vegetables because of not liking a composer's work, how on earth would it make sense to treat the musicians on stage that way when they neither wrote the piece, nor selected it to be played? Perhaps in such an instance, it would be at least somewhat reasonable to boo the conductor, since he or she would have likely selected it and also rehearsed the ensemble to achieve the desired interpretation and musical results.

Either way, what good is it to yell "boo" unless one could actually convey the reasons for doing so? Should everyone on stage just shrug their shoulders and guess? Should they assume it's the conductor's fault, the musicians' fault, or the composer's fault? I suppose it would provide for some backstage water cooler talk, if nothing else.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I join a few other bloggers in incredulity that anyone would boo a piece by Luto...but then I love him and pretty much all 20th and 21st century music. The only piece I've been tempted to boo recently was the Prokofiev 5th. Maybe I was sitting too close - side terrace at Davies, meaning practically on top of the SFS - but jeez, what a rattly overenergized piece that is.

I am personally most likely to boo a crappy performance at the opera: a singer who should not have stepped on stage or a conductor who was asleep at the wheel. I now regret that I didn't boo Tan & Wallace at the end of The Bonesetter's Daughter, which is just crap.

MK said...

I'm not sure why anyone would pay money to go hear a performance of a composers one dislikes so much that one would boo his work... It's not like you can't figure that out in advance...

For future reference, should you ever see me booing, for the avoidance of confusion, I reserve such expressions of displeasure for the conductor or soloist and confine the outburst to the moment when the culprit takes his/her solo bows. ;-)

Adriel said...

In Washington, where conformity is treasured, audiences have come to specialize in standing ovations, irrespective of the quality of the performance. They've paid good money, turned off their Blackberries and taken 1.5 billable hours out of their day for this, so damn it, it must be good! Remaining in one's seat applauding politely nearly qualifies as a boo.

Lisa Hirsch said...

MK, I'm not sure if that's directed to me or the anonymous booer of the Lutoslawski. I can think of a number of reasons: you're a completist and go to everything on an opera company's schedule; you try to catch a new work even though it's gotten mixed reviews; there are other works on the program that you want to hear.

nocynic said...

Wouldn't it have been great to have been in this business back in the days when acolytes of Wagner and Brahms were hissing each other's hero and having fistfights in the audience? If only people still cared that much!
There is a story told by the old timers in the orchestra wherein Mr. Hovnanian and I are employed about a concert conducted by a knighted former music director, now deceased, in Carnegie Hall. Sir Whatsisname apparently at this time played the "Eroica" Funeral March at a truly funereal pace--that concert may not have ended yet. The story goes that an agonized voice from the gallery started remonstrating, "Alright already (knighted former M.D.'s name), alright already! Alright already (knighted former M.D.'s name), alright already!", over and over until he was forcibly removed from the hall. As they got him into the vestibule, you could still faintly hear: "Alright already (knighted former M.D.'s name), alright already!"

Brad said...

Didn't he mention this in his book? If memory serves, upon reflection, he agreed with the man in the audience, somewhat laughingly.

Bill in Dallas said...

In Dallas, we have a sort of ovation at the end of many (most?) concerts wherein a sizeable chunk of the audience heads for the exits while clapping.... I have come to call this our "walking ovation".

Kyle Werner said...

Bill, I love your term "walking ovation." We have those in Cincinnati, too. All these seemingly-frail audience members lurch their way into Music Hall before the concert; then, after the final chord they are imbued with miraculous strength and bolt for the exits while applauding heartily...

Plush said...

I often dream of bursting in to the singer's dressing room, dressed very fancy and in a slightly menacing manner and demanding to be paid off. Otherwise, I announce, I and my booing claque will boo you as you step on stage. For a fee you can avoid this embarrassment.

Then I stick out my hand, palm up.

with thanks,