Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Is Dionysian frenzy even possible in a concert hall?"

I just finished Ivan Hewitt's account for the London Telegraph of Total Immersion, an all-day festival of percussion music organized by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Beyond the specific details, I was particularly struck by Hewitt's punch line for his article:
All this heavy-handed insistence proved was that in the concert-hall, a real Dionysian frenzy isn’t possible. The best one can hope for is an artful portrait of it, but for that, some real art from the composer is required.
If by "Dionysian frenzy" Hewitt means that the audience gets up out of their seats, the better to allow themselves to indulge in wild gyrations, I admit that the very architecture of concert halls tends to suppress such activity. Here in San Francisco, however, that kind of suppression is often overcome. A couple of years ago SFJAZZ presented a concert in Davies Symphony Hall entitled A Night in Treme. This began as a straightforward jazz concert salute to the music that David Simon had used for his HBO Treme series. However, by the end of the evening, things were wild enough that very few people in the audience felt they could take it sitting down any more. Furthermore, those down on the Orchestra level not only left their seats but also headed for the stage in search of more room in which to dance. No one discouraged their going up there, and at least some of the musicians seemed to encourage it.

Concert hall audiences often give in to wild enthusiasm. Even music as familiar as the final dance from Maurice Ravel's score for the "Daphnis et Chloe" ballet can, in the hands of the right conductor and an orchestra willing to follow him/her over the top, get an audience worked up beyond a mere "artful portrait" of frenzy. However, when listening to Ravel, decorum usually prevails. Nevertheless, it is not what the body does that ultimately matters; it is how the spirit is moved. Moving the spirit to "Dionysian frenzy" is definitely possible, but it requires just the right level of commitment from the performers and the right chemistry to bind that commitment to the audience.

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