For the Music
The difference between going to a concert given by a great string quartet, like the Pacifica Quartet, and even a very good one, like the Belceas, is that in the presence of great musicians, you forget about everything but the music itself. I'm not saying you don't notice the players' lovely individual characters, or the way they beautifully interact with each other, or even the fact that they are all terrific musicians; these are factors, inevitably, in the way you take in the music at a live concert. But when the musicians are as dedicated, as talented, and as cohesive as the Pacificas are, what finally comes through is the pure expression of the composer's gift. All intermediary considerations drop away: you do not ask yourself how well this interpretation works, or which of the four musicians plays with the most originality, or even whether this performance accords with your preconceived idea of the piece. For the duration of the concert, the performance is the piece, pure and unadulterated by any considerations of individual ego or pyrotechnic display.
Or so I felt on Saturday night at the Peoples' Symphony Concert in Chelsea, when the Pacificas performed three of my favorite pieces of quartet music: Haydn's Op. 76, No. 4, Shostakovich's Second Quartet, and Beethoven's Op. 132. All critical sensibility dropped away, and I simply relaxed into the pleasure of hearing these gems played perfectly, one after the other. The Haydn is something I listen to all the time on my iPod; it is part of the background music of my life. The Shostakovich is dear to my heart: though it was only the composer's second venture into the form, I think it's in some ways the most stirring of his fifteen quartets (and the Pacificas, in my opinion, play it better than anyone else, living or dead). The Beethoven, though undeniably one of his late great quartets, somehow gets shamefully neglected in my internal list of music I care about; it always takes hearing it again, especially in a beautiful performance, to remind me that it is indeed one of the best.
I was thinking approximately these thoughts as we were approaching the end of the powerfully wrenching Heiliger Dankgesang movement in the Beethoven, when suddenly the stage lights went out. They didn't go out with the abrupt shock of a power failure: they faded, as if on a predetermined schedule, and at first the audience evidently thought the Pacificas had decided to use lighting effects to echo the music's somber, contemplative mood. But I know the Pacifica Quartet too well to think they would ever stoop to such flashy tricks, and soon everyone realized that this "trick" had gone on too long. The Pacificas bravely continued playing in the dark to the end of the movement. Then they paused, and a member of the Peoples' Symphony Concerts staff--the only member of the staff, if I can judge by the fact that he collected tickets, arranged the stage backdrop, and informed us where the bathrooms were--came to the stage and announced that since he couldn't figure out how to turn the stage lights back on, the concert was over.
I consider myself a socialist at heart, and I like the idea of a concert series that charges $13 per ticket and holds its events in high-school auditoriums. But incidents like this repeatedly prove to me that if something is called the Peoples' This or That, disorganization and incompetence are likely to ensue. I hate to say that we must have administrative dictatorship and wealthy patronage to make arts presentation possible. Surely there is some other alternative--some way the People can sponsor the best in musical performances without allowing the lights to go out.