A Tenth Anniversary Re-Post: November, 2006
The other night I went to hear the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff play Mozart at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but I think what I may have heard was the by-now familiar sound of civilization going to hell in a handbasket. Again.
The program promised to be a pleasure trove for Mozart-lovers; you had your sonatas, your rondos, even a fantasy and an adagio thrown in for good measure. I’d splurged on decent seats for myself and friend Ed, another lover of this kind of keyboard fare; we had a good view of Mr. Schiff’s expressive face as he settled in behind the grand.
He started off with the Sonata in A major (K331), a deceptively simple-sounding earlier work that you recognize the moment it starts; it’s capped by the famous “Turkish” movement, a jaunty little tune that’s been a crowd-pleaser for oh, around 225 years. And this is what I found myself musing on, as Schiff continued coaxing clear, delicate, beautifully nuanced tones from the Fantasy in D minor that followed: wasn’t it amazing that these melodies, written centuries ago, had persevered throughout such a span of history?
I had one of those neat little “music of eternity” epiphanies, imagining Mozart, the rock star of his time, sitting at his piano, riffing on his latest hit tune for a small audience of friends. Could he have had any idea that this shift from major to minor in a quick playfully sideways trill would be repeated and imitated by countless piano players for literally hundreds of years to come? Could he ever have imagined… well, this: the futuristic, ark-like interior of Gehry’s hall, filled with the strangely dressed denizens of the 21st century, listening intently to the choices his fingers made some afternoon in 1781, and… Coughing? Rustling in their seats? Squeaking? Sneezing?
It was an unusually noisy crowd, this night in the home of the L.A. Phil. I’d been subliminally aware of it from the start but hadn’t paid much attention, since audience noise has long been a given nuisance at such recitals. Still, it seemed par for the contemporary course… until Schiff got deep into the heart of the Adagio in B minor, a haunting, piercingly emotional work that was in his masterly hands a delicate, crystalline creation – abruptly shattered by a loud noise from the rear of the hall.
Not just a bang, but a clunk followed by a series of clunks. It was, as I later learned, someone’s cane, dropped on the wooden steps and clattering downward, step by step by step, for a loooooooooong extended fall. Schiff slowed but didn’t falter – you could see him register what couldn’t be ignored, but he hung in there and kept playing… and the coughing began.
Some poor woman on our side of the hall was having a fit, and bless her heart, she tried to subdue her hacking, rose from her seat and hurried up the aisle. Problem is, the hallway outside this section of the hall led not out and away from the interior, but alongside it, so as she continued to cough, every time she hurried past a doorway, the coughing sounded louder than ever.
Andras Schiff stopped playing, literally threw up his hands, and stalked off the stage. And who could blame him? But as Ed and I wondered, a low murmur starting up all over the auditorium from similar conversations between concertgoers, would he come back?
Soon after, Deborah Borda, President of the L.A. Phil Association, emerged to speak to the audience. She handled the situation admirably, explaining that the hall’s acoustics were so superb that the smallest sound from the listeners could be heard all too perfectly by the performers, and asked for our help in focusing our concentration and trying to be as quiet as possible.
We applauded, she left, and in a moment, Master Schiff reappeared to an even louder ovation. He gave us a game “well, these things happen” sort of smile, and sat down at the keyboard again. Silence reigned, and indeed, the focus Ms. Borda had requested was palpable as he began to resume the Adagio from where he’d left off.
That’s when the cell phone rang. The entire Disney Hall audience, en masse, emitted an appalled groan, and Schiff gazed with incredulity in the direction of the mechanical-musical ring, finally silenced. For a terrible moment, I thought he might just give up – on Mozart, the evening, and us. But with a regretful shake of his head, Schiff took a few seconds and a deep breath… then began the piece again. At this point, feeling intensely embarrassed on behalf of Los Angeles, I had a mini-anxiety attack in my seat, wondering what possible acoustic disaster might follow this. A fire engine siren? Someone with Tourette’s screaming curses? Thankfully, though the occasional cough, rustle and scraping still provided unwelcome accompaniment, Schiff got through the rest of the program relatively unscathed.
In fact, as Mark Swed pointed out in his review of the concert for the L.A. Times, having overcome this obstacle, Schiff played with more fire (read: exasperation and rage) than he might have, otherwise. He gave a truly inspired performance for the duration of the evening, and you could say this was a demonstration of a basic artistic principle – that adversity is often the mother of creativity; it’s the “no pearl without some sand in the oyster” idea.
But the element of drama, though also perversely entertaining, was something I could’ve done without – as I sat through this and the next piece on the edge of my seat, in active dread of another interruption. I’d had to hold myself back from rising from that seat after the phone debacle, to rail at the audience as Yeats once did (when his Irish countrymen talked through the world premiere of Playboy of the Western World): “Philistines! You’ve disgraced yourselves again!”
And I could imagine Schiff talking of this night later on, rolling his eyes and railing at those heathens in Hollywood. The cane was one thing, the coughing fit something else, but that cell phone… not exactly an event that would make our little Sodom and Gomorrah town seem any more of a mecca of high culture.
This was the high horse I was briefly about to saddle up, until I suddenly thought of Mozart again – the unbuttoned, wild-card trickster of a composer who reportedly delighted in a good fart joke and was prone to turning from pathos to parody on a half-note – and realized that somewhere, the ever-young Amadeus had to be laughing himself silly.