stop the music and watch the audience

I have been in ensembles where things have come just to the brink of falling apart, but I have never found myself in a situation of on-stage restarting. It is comforting to know, however, that I would be in good company if and when that situation arises. My number one, the Cleveland Orchestra, had a restart on-stage recently, as noted by Vivien Schweitzer in Playbillarts: “There must have been something in the Midwestern air last Thursday, as performances in Detroit and Cleveland both came to a grinding halt.” She goes on to quote some of the Donald Rosenberg story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Anyone who has ever played an instrument or sung knows the uncomfortable feeling that creeps in when things don’t quite go as the composer planned.

Listeners aren’t always aware of these discrepancies, but the Cleveland Orchestra’s audience Thursday at Severance Hall was abuzz at intermission about the two interruptions during the last movement of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin and 13 Wind Instruments.

The piece was moving along when everything suddenly collapsed and music director Franz Welser-Möst uttered, “Sorry.” He took the ensemble back a bunch of bars and tried again, to no better effect.

“You see how difficult this is,” the conductor said to the audience. “It worked this morning.”

Finally, Welser-Möst got his meters straight, and the music proceeded to its inevitable, touching end. One suspects the weekend’s remaining performances will go more smoothly.

Berg’s score deserves the attention. It is a masterpiece of construction and emotional content, albeit one of the most intricate works in the repertoire. The composer flirts with 12-tone techniques as he incorporates hidden codes and the musical names of his close Viennese colleagues Schoenberg and Webern into the fabric.

The opening theme and variations introduce the primary motives and develop them. The second movement is a palindrome that also serves as an impassioned memorial to Schoenberg’s first wife, Mathilde. Material from the first and second movements are combined in the finale, whose tricky textures and rhythms — the cause of Thursday’s distress — are major challenges.

Despite the discomfort, the performance wasn’t an outright disaster, though it also wasn’t very good. Mitsuko Uchida’s forceful, alert pianism and concertmaster William Preucil’s silken violin solos gave vibrant voice to Berg’s profusion of ideas even when the interplay of solo instruments and fine winds failed to achieve coherence or urgency. Welser-Möst’s helpful comments before the performance about the work’s “meaning” often didn’t transfer to the music-making itself.

How mortifying.

Coincidentally, the music (and more) blog, Dragons and Princesses, posted a similar story this week:

Big applause the other night, but the conductor kept going. Low strings didn’t…violins did for a couple notes.

Awkward short silence, then huge cue which most of us correctly understood to be the next forte entrance-so we had skipped a few bars. Fun. Maybe that’s the musical equivalent of things getting lost in cyberspace.

We finished the act, and conductor waves hands in front of face…but we couldn’t figure out if that was an international gesture for “You should really watch me closer next time”, “Something strange just happened on stage”, or “I’m sorry, that was completely my fault”.

It’s only a matter of time for me.

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