severance hall

What was I expecting?

I’ll admit it: until this week, I hadn’t been to a live concert, in a concert hall, by a professional orchestra, in a very long time. (The disclaimers are necessary to exclude concerts in the park, or in churches by amateur orchestras, both of which can be very rewarding, but Just Aren’t The Same.) Largely it’s been a matter of not being able to afford it when I’m not working, and not being able to schedule it when I am, but there’s also been an element of laziness involved—orchestral recordings are convenient, and chamber concerts are cheaper!

And then this week, I went to two. The Royal Danish Orchestra played at Alice Tully Hall, and there were half-price tickets for the cheap seats, and so I went. And then the Mostly Mozart festival gave away free tickets to a “preview” concert, and I was lucky enough to get one of those, and so I went to that too. It was like coming back home after being away for a long time—I practically lived at Severance Hall when I was going to school in Cleveland—but “you can’t go home again” turned out to apply here as in so many other situations.

Both orchestras were terrific, and it was a joy to hear live orchestral sound again. But when the Royal Danish Orchestra walked out on stage, something seemed strange. It took me a while to place it: they didn’t look like what I remembered an orchestra looking like—there were so many blondes! Not only that, there was none of the black hair that goes with the significant Asian membership of all the orchestras I’ve ever seen.

Well, I got over that easily enough. But then at Avery Fisher Hall two nights later, the setup was different from anything I’d ever seen—the basses were on the conductor’s left! The brass was on the right instead of at the back! There was a section of audience behind the orchestra, and two more on the sides! When did that happen? That’s like having Tuesday come after Wednesday! That’s like having the steering wheel on the right!

I got over that, too, actually, and enjoyed the orchestra enjoying Mozart. But not all thwarted expectations are as easily recovered from; when you’re the composer (or the performer), the line between different and just plain wrong is a narrow one. You give a concert or put on a show, and you expect the producers or presenters to get some butts in the seats. (Ouch). A performer commissions a piece from you, you expect that performer to learn the piece, or at least tell you if it’s too hard to play. (Whoops!) You elect Congressional representatives, you expect them to govern the country. (Zing! But I digress.)

Zen Buddhism would tell us that it’s not the thwarting of our expectations in situations like this that causes the frustration, disappointment or stress, it’s the expectations themselves. If you’re not attached to a particular outcome, then whatever happens is fine by you, right? Non-attachment is far easier said than done, of course. And attachment is part of the human condition, at least where music is concerned.

One of the principal things composers (and performers) do is manipulate expectations. The chord progressions of tonal music are so potent because they both tell you that something is about to happen and then deliver it—or something different and better. One of the holy grails of composing for me is the moment that’s both totally unexpected and yet inevitable: an instantaneous shift of expectations. A lovely surprise.

There’s plenty of music that eschews the manipulation of expectations: John Cage, Pauline Oliveros. And plenty of music that’s so clichéd that its attempts to do so fall flat. And expectation, as always, is dependent on the individual listener: if you’re a naïve listener you won’t have expectations of nuance to be fulfilled or not. If you are a sophisticated listener you may overlook the surface appeal, the broad strokes.

Any piece of music that’s new to you has the potential to be better, worse, different, stranger, more ordinary than you expect. And speaking of new music: the demo recording of All About The Kids, the “homicidal soccer mom” musical I’m writing with Erik Johnke, is now up on my website. Give it a listen!