Vänskä conducting A London Symphony

Dave and I went to a terrific concert at Davies last night. Osmo Vänskä, who has become a favorite conductor for both of us in the last couple of years, was conducting. First was a new work by Thomas Larcher, titled Red and Green. It was interesting and listenable, but all in all it seemed rather cerebral and I didn’t get much of a sense of shape from it. Still, I’d have to hear it again to have much of an opinion: I’m not good at picking up new music from a single hearing, and the list of works that I found rather dull the first time I heard them but later grew to love is embarrassingly long. So I can’t say much about it.

However, in a discussion after the concert, the composer at one point mentioned that the title, Red and Green, was deliberately unspecific in order to “give the listener space” to create his or her interpretation. I think this is a bad idea, rather like saying I’m going to keep as much sand as possible out of the oyster bed in order to give the oysters more space to create their own pearls. It just doesn’t seem to work that way. What I have always found is that the audience’s determination to create its own interpretations (and misinterpretations) of your work is limitless, or at least vast beyond your power to affect; you don’t have to do anything to help make it happen. Write as specifically as you can and you provide the material onto which each listener can project a different, deeply personal interpretation; write generally and the audience will have less for their unconscious minds to grab onto, and they’ll find your work vague and bland as a result.

Whether this is in fact true of Red and Green, I can’t say, not after one listening; what the composer says about his own process of creation isn’t necessarily true. It was just a comment that set off an alarm for me.

Next was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with Alexander Barantschik soloing. Dave and I heard this work live not that long ago, and I didn’t need to hear it again so soon — my sweet tooth for this kind of showpiece is easily satisfied. But this was a wonderfully light and transparent performance, taken more drily and less sweetly than I’ve heard the piece before, and I enjoyed it.

After the intermission came the best part, the best performance of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony that I ever expect to hear in this lifetime — just stunning from beginning to end. Dave pointed out to me today that Vänskä was conducting the slow movements of the Vaughan Williams rather as though he were conducting Sibelius, with lots of airiness and gradual unfolding of the themes. Well, whatever it was that he was doing, it was wonderful, each phrase seeming to blossom organically out of the previous phrase throughout the piece.

Unfortunately, this was also one of the noisiest audiences I’ve sat among in quite a while. To our left was an elderly man, apparently hard of hearing, who was unaware of how much noise he was making adjusting his headset and rattling his program booklet and opening and closing some kind of case he had on his lap; the couple directly in front of us snuggled and whispered to each other throughout, despite catching my glare at least twice. And everywhere was coughing, coughing, coughing. You’d think that people would have coughed themselves out with all the noise they were making during the quieter sections, but then at the breaks between movements the coughing would really let fly and you’d realize that they’d actually been holding back. And every time a movement ended quietly, you could count on somebody having a coughing fit about one measure before the final note. It’s been explained to me that I should be more understanding and sympathetic, and that if you have to cough, then you have to cough, and I’m just fortunate in not having the kind of health problems that make coughing unavoidable. But if people know they are frequent coughers (and you can’t convince me that they all have conditions that just suddenly seized them for the very first time on entering the hall that night), couldn’t they bring handkerchiefs to cough into and at least try to muffle the sound a bit that way?

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