I had a fabulous time at the free Bang on a Can Marathon this past Sunday at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden Atrium in downtown Manhattan. But my level of commitment and connectivity to the listening experience was nowhere near what it had been just a few days earlier during the two concerts I attended at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles.
The contrast in reaction to these events had nothing to do with any of the music or its performances, which were both top shelf in both cities. It even wasn't ultimately about the acoustics. (While Disney Hall prides itself on its audio verité sonics and the Winter Garden is a crapshoot at best, the BoaCers' sound people worked minor miracles most of the time.) Ultimately the differences boiled down to the overall vibe and the mode of presentation, ironically something that has little to do with sound.
My earliest exposure to both opera and symphonic repertoire was through free Central Park concerts as a preteen so I have first hand knowledge of the value of such events and am arguably a poster child of their success. In fact, I still remember resisting much of that music at first because there was nothing "new" on the program, so back in 1976 I really could've used a free Bang on a Can marathon. But having learned to love music that becomes more and more interesting the closer you pay attention to it, the low risk environment which initially turned me on to such music eventually became a hindrance to deeper listening once I became a fan.
At Disney Hall, when Esa Pekka Salonen led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, a piece I must have heard over a hundred times and could probably sing back to you from start to finish, I heard details I was never aware of before: from a barely audible, yet completely perceivable, brass pianissimo to a brash sectional disjointedness that sounded like a train wreck but is all in the score. In a piece I never heard before, the brand new percussion concerto by Kevin Puts, which the Pacific Symphony under the direction of Carl St. Clair played two nights later, distinctions between various mallet instruments (all played by Evelyn Glennie) became as clear as the distinctions between woodwinds.
At the Winter Garden, instead of focusing on the three-person band of a guitar-wielding throat singer from Siberia—which I really wanted to do—I was more mindful of three impatient children to my left and their mother who was having a conversation on a cell phone throughout. And the palm tree in front of me obscured a significant portion of the stage to the point that I wasn't sure when So Percussion's set with Matmos actually began. Perceptions were further challenged by the decision to play recorded music between acts to minimize people's impatience during set changes. Plus, since it seemed like I knew more than a third of the audience, there was even more meeting and greeting going on here than there was at the two Disney Hall concerts which were held during an even bigger meet and greet, the American Symphony Orchestra League conference!
In the opening plenary panel of that conference (which is why I was in L.A. and more on that elsewhere in these pages later this week), Justin Davidson reminded us that the Brandenburg Concertos were first performed in a beer hall to which Esa-Pekka later retorted that concert music sounds best in concert halls. I am thrilled by the possibility and democracy of music everywhere, but there's only so much attention you can give to detail in a beer hall.
The post-Cage, post-Eno listener in me ought to have had a field day with the wonderful blur of background and foreground at this year's BoaC marathon but instead I found myself craving something more from this music since I knew that there was something more from it. And, indeed, there were times when I was able to channel everything else out—the new Lisa Moore solo plus pre-recorded Lisa version of Julia Wolfe's piece for six pianos was a revelation and the Italian ensemble Sentieri Selvaggi, who played three new Italian works, got my virtually undivided attention, which was a miracle even greater than what they accomplished with the sound system.