Friday, April 24, 2009

Open Ears 2009: Friday April 24

It's time once again for Kitchener's "Open Ears" festival, one of the few events in town that I feel is targeted towards me. It's a time when local venues open their doors to quirky -- and sometimes very famous -- outsider musicians and composers, allowing us to experience new things and finally see those obscure acts we've always heard about. You big-city folk are probably used to this sort of thing, but here in the boonies it's a rare and wonderful treat.

I've been to the last two festivals (it happens every second year) and I've got my full 2009 pass. Tonight the Center in the Square hosted the first two events.

"In C" (Terry Riley), performed by the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Music Students

I've never seen "In C" before. It's something everybody talks about. Now I know why.

You can read about its structure at the Wikipedia page. In this case it was performed by about thirty musicians, and I think it lasted for 45 minutes. The most obvious thing about it were the constant, regular, never-ending C note played on some sort of small xylophone, while violinists, a cellist, an acoustic guitarist, two pianists, a guy with a discreet synthesizer, and a bunch of people with horns played the phrases in a semi-improvisational way.

Obviously the phrases have been picked to avoid any sort of discordance, but even so this sort of thing could be either a creative dogfight or a woefully flat bunch of boring. In this case, however, all the musicians were playing close attention to each other -- rising and falling in long swells throughout the piece -- and they were also allowing others to take the forefront. In short, everybody stuck together and everybody picked up their cues. It was hypnotic, beautiful, and a wee bit awesome.

I felt sorry for the xylophone woman (known as "the Metronome") and the single vocalist. Sore arms and a dry throat, no doubt.

"Sound Explorations" (various composers), performed by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, conducted by Edwin Outwater with Stephen Sitarski, violin

As usual for me, the ticketing procedure for Open Ears has been bizarre. After no end of confusion actually BUYING my festival pass, the fun continued at tonight's show...the usherettes didn't know what to do with the temporary ticket that was mailed to me ("I've never seen one of these. Should I rip it in half?"). The man at the box-office traded half of the temporary ticket for two (?) ACTUAL tickets to the symphony show, even though I was going alone and had only purchased one. The usherettes ripped ONE of the tickets, leaving me with the other that I suppose I could have hocked.

Once inside the venue I presented the other half of my temporary ticket to a guy at the Open Ears kiosk, and he gave it back to me and also gave me a lanyard, leaving me with one UNCLAIMED show ticket, one CLAIMED show ticket, one half of the TEMPORARY ticket ("You need to always keep this with you," he said), and the thing to hang around my neck.

Then, after watching "In C" (which was performed in the lobby), I entered the theater itself and was shown to my assigned seat. A woman sat on my left, and another woman sat two seats to my right, and they started to talk over my head. This totally confused me -- why hadn't they gotten seats together? -- and when I offered to trade seats so they could chat more comfortably they told me that a doctor and his wife always sat in my seats, "but maybe they're on vacation."

So there I was sitting in another person's reserved seat, beside an empty seat for that person's wife, upon which was taped a special invitation telling me to go to the theater office to claim a special gift I'd earned for donating $1250 to the Center in the Square.

Fortunately the concert itself made more sense.

Two of the numbers ("The Hebrides" by Felix Mendelssohn and "The Sea: Suite for Orchestra" by Frank Bridge) were quite conventional, presented as inspirations for the more experimental works that followed them. I was never taken to the symphony as a child and I haven't made it a practice as an adult, so I'm afraid I've never quite known how to LISTEN to orchestral music. How does it parse? Where does it lead? The only experience with classical music I've ever really had was listening to "Switched-on Bach" and watching "Allegro Non Troppo":

(For those who want to know how it ends, the second half is here and the finale is here).

So when I see a symphony performing a really nice piece of music I find myself unable to just soak it up and not think about it; my eyes are always darting from one person to the other...the percussionist who looks like Dawn French, the cadaver playing the cello, the young violinist who bobs her head with carefree abandon, the endearingly swishy conductor.

More my line was R. Murray Schafer's "The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller," which was a tad more challenging. I tend to be unimpressed by daringly avant-garde symphonic pieces, but this one was short on discord and stayed close within its boundaries: ominous sonic landscape, lonely violin. It was both emotionally and intellectually stimulating.

NOTE: Mr. Schafer himself is coming to Cambridge this week to perform a "Harbingers of Spring" soundwalk which sounds terribly flaky. There are drummers.

After the encore we got John Cage's "4'33"" I was curious to see how the audience would respond to this piece...and I was totally surprised.

Now's a good time to mention that this show overlapped with KW Symphony's "Signature Series" which provides much more conventional fare. For this reason most of the people in the audience were dapper elderly couples, with a scattered collection of the middle-aged. I thought that "4'33"" would annoy them.

As I understand it the piece tends to invoke a lot of "audience noise," which is pretty much the entire point: allowing the theatre environment to express itself. But in this case the folks in the audience were so respectful that we all sat in total silence except for scattered coughs and giggles. A woman behind me even APOLOGIZED for giggling. But I suppose that was one of "the environments" that Cage anticipated.

The last piece was Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." It had very little relation to the Art of Noise-remixed Frankie Goes to Hollywood song, "Rage Hard (The Young Person's Guide to the 12-Inch Mix)," but was just as fabulous.

"Always note the sequencer. It will never let us down. Let it have its wicked way."

What can I say about "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra?" It's a showcase of every instrument's strengths without ever being TOO obvious. It deliberately contains every cliche in the book. All four percussionists -- Dawn French included -- got a thorough workout. It felt great, but the best part was the opportunity it gave the "resting" musicians to watch and appreciate those at work, something I think they rarely get to do in such a segmented way.

At the end of the show I started chatting with Wendy, the woman next to me. She holds a pass to the "Signature Series" and I hold a pass to "Open Ears," so we came from different but mutually-appreciative directions. We talked about the music we'd heard and what we liked, and it was VERY interesting to hear her impressions. She explained by the conductor kept shaking hands with ONLY two of the musicians on stage (they were the first and second violins). And then she drove me home! You rock, Wendy!

Anyway, the festival has begun and it's going to be a busy week. Stay tuned for trivial updates.


Edwin Outwater said...

Hey -- I'm Edwin, the conductor of the KWS. Loved the post -- it's so interesting to see the orchestra through someone else's eyes (who doesn't regularly go). Hope you enjoy the festival -- we're trying to get a comment stream up on twitter (#openears), if you're interested.

PS sorry about the ticketing confusion, I've forwarded your experience along to the proper folks.

Adam Thornton said...

Thanks for a great show, Edwin! When I wasn't enjoying the music (or the silence) I was keeping eagle-eyes on everything around me, trying to get a feel for the ritual of the symphony. You must get quite a workout running back and forth. :)

Wendy (the signature series pass holder) and I chatted quite a bit about the ritual, and in particular the way the audience was thrown when you reversed the entrance order during the opening. I heard people whispering around me ("This is different! It's backwards!") and didn't understand the significance of the gesture until you mentioned it.

So Wendy and I talked about the importance of ritual, and then the potential liberation of breaking FREE of the ritual, and the sort of dissonance such things introduce. Strangely, 4'33" -- which is a complete inversion of the ritual -- wasn't as liberating to the audience as I'd thought it would be...maybe we're more blase about such commentary than folks were when it was composed. In some ways the avant-garde has moved into public consciousness (as it always does) and reality TV gives us a palpable example of "the audience as performer" every day.
As for the ticketing confusion, I understand some of it was due to the new system implemented by the Symphony, but I just always have bad luck with the tickets.

Edwin Outwater said...

Yeah -- I wonder why those rituals exist in the first place, so it was fun to mess with them a little. 4'33" got weird reactions from the audience, some thought it was an "old joke" which is too bad 'cause I don't think the piece is a joke at all ....

The Centre in the Square has one of the longest walks to the podium ever, and it becomes quite funny after a while. I almost jog nowadays.