The other night my wife and I decided to abandon the children and go out. As there was no concert or play of interest to us in the entire Sydney basin, I suggested we go on a restaurant crawl instead. We drove to Balmain and stopped in at a swank Thai restaurant and had delicious duck pancakes, salt and pepper squid and prawns, then drove down to Glebe to an upmarket diner where we had lamb cutlets with a tasty salsa of mint, jalapenos, coriander and chilli and shared a pork rack in a red wine sauce. As we sat nursing our delightfully deep glasses of Argentinian malbec, I pondered on variety, the spice of life, and how we need more of it in concerts, many of which have acquired a stodgy meat and two veg flavour.
Alex Ross wrote a wonderful article recently in The New Yorker on two books that investigated the development of the modern concert. In After the Golden Age, Kenneth Hamilton writes that Franz Liszt used to bring an urn on to the stage containing slips of paper the audience had written with the titles of pieces upon which he would improvise. “On turning out the urn in a concert on March 15, 1838 in Milan, Liszt found a piece of paper with the question ‘Is it better to marry or remain single?’ to which he slickly replied, ‘Whatever course one chooses, one is sure to regret it.’”
In William Weber’s The Great Transformation of Musical Taste, the author describes a Viennese concert in 1865 featuring the Strauss-family orchestra and the Prussian Royal Hussars’ band that paired excerpts from Tristan und Isolde with a vocal quartet singing ‘What Girls Do to Logic’. Highbrow and lowbrow on the same program, a delightful middlebrow of music-making.
Nowadays we have veered in the other direction with whole concerts being devoted to one composer. I find those very difficult especially when they are also played on one instrument. Some years ago I hosted a broadcast of a pianist who played all the piano music of Debussy over an entire day. It seemed like one of those competitions when someone has to eat 250 hotdogs without throwing up. How much Debussy can you listen to without feeling sick? I wonder if Debussy himself could have sat through 12 hours of his own music?
Maybe there should be ‘concert crawling’ – where you get a single ticket that allows you entry to a range of different performances. Take in a symphony movement, walk up the road to a string quartet, and then enjoy classical guitar interspersed with contemporary mime. Bon appetit!