Beethoven On the Floor

A recent home performance of some string and flute quartets promised a nice personal counter to the increasingly anonymous concert hall experience. The thought of a couple of Mozart flute quartets and some Beethoven in someone’s home seemed like an invitation too good to miss, and I dutifully showed up at 7.30pm at a house I had never been to before, along with a large crowd of strangers and their wine bottles.

RetroCocktailPartyNervous chatter filled the rooms as guests mounded their coats and recognized or failed to recognize other people that they knew. The host coped anxiously with the flood of arrivals, directed traffic to bathrooms and cloakrooms, and made some introductions where he could. I chatted to some bee-keeping homesteaders (“Must go look that one up…”) and after a generous 30 minutes of relatively awkward cork-popping and socializing, we were ready to start. The host called for attention. “Everyone find a place, and those under 30 sit on the floor.” There was humorous confusion, as we tried to identify the absent youngsters.

Groupmuse is an impresario organization that encourages sponsors to open their homes as chamber music venues, and schedules the performers from a pool of available local musicians. The tradition of house party performances goes back to the early 19th century, when home owners hosted evenings of music making, to the great benefit of Schubert and other contemporary composers who were exploiting this new interest in and need for chamber music and piano songs.

For the modern day home owner it’s a no-risk commitment; the audience members pay the players directly, bring their own booze, and leave when they are told to. Welcoming c.35 strangers over to listen to some live music is a great way to make a handful of new friends and catch some culture, or so the sales pitch goes. This was Groupmuse’s first gig in the South Bay, and the venue sold out easily.

ViolinBut despite all the positive momentum and innovative buzz, our evening was only a relative success. The system relies on crack players who can produce quality performances with few rehearsals, and that certainly was not the case in San Jose. Obvious mistakes sullied the performance, and were made worse by the players’ not seeming to notice or care. ‘Phoning it in’ neither serves the audience nor does the music justice (Beethoven! op. 18!) and even inexperienced listeners can sniff out complacent or under-rehearsed playing. People know when they are being talked down to.

Although the cash expense is certainly no problem ($10 per listener,) sitting on the floor to hear someone not get the notes right, well, it has its cost beyond the dollars. Just as people don’t go back to restaurants that serve indifferent food, audiences won’t return for warmed over Beethoven. The San Jose performance was a fine run-through early rehearsal, but not much more.

I have to say that I as a performer have been guilty of the same complacent attitude, relying on the credulity and ignorance of the audience. When I was in 10th grade our high school music teacher, always the agent provocateur, scheduled a concert of wildly modern music for us to play, a concert whose main and unadvertised aim was clearly to upset the supportive bourgeois family members in attendance. Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue for speaking chorus, Imaginary Landscapes #4 by John Cage arranged for four radios and playing cards, Paul Patterson’s Rebecca (who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably) for balloons and speaker, all elicited the muted outrage we had expected. Despite the audience’s indulgence, they were basically not amused.

The standard was pretty low (- did we have to restart the Geographical Fugue? – we might have -) and as a result the inner shame was inescapable; even before word of our ill-preparedness got back to the Beak, our Head of School, my conscience knew that we had given a shoddy performance to take advantage of our audience’s credulous and partial nature. I knew that no-one would dare question the ‘earnest’ performance of schoolchildren. It was a cowardly shield to hide behind, and I felt pangs of guilt about not advocating for the worth of the music (even for the balloon Rebecca) and undermining its integrity by a slapdash lack of rehearsal and commitment.

Forty years later I still know complacency, that smug and uncritical self-satisfaction, when I hear it. Like bad acting, under-rehearsed performing draws attention to itself, and renders the music uncommunicative beyond the mistakes. Audiences and composers deserve more than phoned-in, uncommitted performances. There are already enough disincentives to attend a concert, and sloppy Beethoven shouldn’t be one of them.

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