Archive for June 23rd, 2008

Attacking the Invisible Wall

The final 8 Days in June standing O (one among many) for maestro Peter Oundjian and the ladies and gentlemen of the Detroit Symphony

It was Peter Oundjian who brought it up. He was on the stage of Orchestra Hall just prior to the final concert of the DSO’s 8 Days in June extravaganza. He and Tom Allen were talking over the sophomore year of 8 Days, when Peter pointed out how crucial it was to break down the invisible wall between the performers and the audience.

Then Tom actually leapt through that wall, taking a microphone into the pre-concert crowd like a latter day Phil Donahue, and we were off. Here was the real payoff of 8 Days.

More than the music, though the performances I heard were uniformly thrilling.

More than the programming, though there was plenty of adventure in that department (Glass, Messiaen and Cage? In the same week?).

More even than the deliciously casual, free-flowing atmosphere filled with newcomers of all ages, which has been discussed elsewhere on this blog.

More than all of that, it was this deliberate thrust to consistently and directly engage the audience that puts this festival into a very special category indeed.

Case Study No 1: Schnittke Happens

On Saturday night’s program, following Mendelssohn’s brilliant Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, up comes a quirky modern piece called (Not) a Midsummer Night’s Dream by Alfred Schnittke. In a pre-8 Days world, hearing this kind of thing cold turkey would empty large sections of Orchestra Hall. Not this time.

Out come Tom and Peter, not with a lecture on atonality and the influences of the Second Viennese School, but with the simple statement that we should expect “a lot of wrong notes.” It makes all the difference. The thing is a spoof. Now that we’re all in on the joke, instead of uncomfortable fidgeting once the music starts to go off the rails, the audience actually laughs out loud. We get it. And a load of bricks are dislodged from that invisible wall.

Case Study No. 2: Cage Match

Last April Fool’s Day, Tom Allen on his CBC morning show held a Cage Match of competing performances of 4’33″ by John Cage, a notorious piece wherein the musician is totally silent. Well, on Day 6 Tom got the chance to participate in a real contest when the festival presented Cage’s Lecture on the Weather, a typically unconventional composition featuring overlapping excerpts of texts by Henry David Thoreau. True to form, the element of chance underlies the composition by design, so that no two performances are alike.

At intermission there is a spirited discussion over what was heard including a couple of patrons who “just didn’t like it at all.” And then they performed it again. The whole piece. And sure enough it came out differently. This time our disappointed patrons actually liked the piece. And another load of bricks fell out of the wall.

Now the point here is not that anyone was “converted” to modern music. The real gem of this incident, and the festival’s gold standard of success, is that here was an audience that felt comfortable enough (and safe enough) to actually say out loud that they didn’t like something. In front of the people who played it.

That’s why when I asked Tom for some of his post festival impressions, he told me without hesitation that the real star of 8 Days In June was the community of listeners that emerged around the concerts.

“Every night there were more interesting and insightful comments, every concert brought the ideas, the musicians and the people listening a little closer together. The lines that have traditionally kept great music at a distance from the people who love it are growing fainter and fainter, and the wonderful 8 Days audience is telling us to keep going further in that direction. That means bright things ahead!”

And the wall came a tumblin’ down.


Related Stories:

8 Days in June fest a chaotic success, by Mark Stryker; Detroit Free Press; June 23, 2008

Orchestra’s ’8 Days’ festival a mix of fun, insight, by Lawrence B. Johnson; Detroit News; June 23, 2008

(From The Well-Tempered Wireless)

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