Friday night Suzy and I attended an all contemporary chamber music concert. (Contemporary if you count Ysaÿe.) It's been a long time since I did that.
The venue was a huge space in downtown Phoenix called The Ice House, which is exactly what it was built to be in 1910. It's now owned by a woman who uses it for displaying large contemporary art exhibits that are unusual and can't be or just aren't displayed elsewhere, and for performance art. It's directly across the street from Sheriff Joe Arpaio's offices. (Non-Phoenix readers of this review may be unaware that Sheriff Joe is the most colorful and probably most well-known law enforcement officer in the country. But that's a subject for another post.)
The floors at The Ice House are concrete, the walls are brick, the ceiling is at least 20 feet high, and the lighting is inadequate for spectators who had to squint to see their programs. It was chilly in there, but not uncomfortable. We had a dip in the weather here, with rain and chill and even snow in outlying areas. Inside the venue nobody took off their coats, and two ladies were sitting with a blanket over their lap. Still, I didn't hear anyone complaining.
The program was all string music: String Quartet #2 by Henryk Górecki (I have a recording by Kronos), a Sonata for solo cello by Ysaÿe, "Riconoscenze per Goffredo Petrassi" for solo violin by Elliott Carter, Violin Phase (played by four violinists) by Steve Reich, and a collection of tangos by Astor Piazolla, with the last couple of pieces spiced up by first a pair of dancers with big-shot credentials, and finally by three pair of dancers, all fun to watch.
I enjoy occasional verbal program notes at a concert, especially when some piece warrants some explanation or if background information somehow enhances the listening experience — but only if the comments are accurate and not silly or apologetic, as sometimes happens with contemporary music. "You're probably gonna hate this music, but lemme explain while we're making you listen to it before you walk out."
No, there was none of that at Friday's concert. The commentary was by and large okay, but I didn't like the gross generalization of classifying all the minimalists in one lump while all the others: Carter and Stockhausen and Berio and Boulez and ... well you know ... as the "other" camp that can be described with another single label. Carter in particular stands apart from those others in many ways, as anyone who has really listened to or studied his music is aware. So I could have done without the description of the kind of music "Carter and his camp" compose as being done by the guys who studied hard at Julliard and wherever, while the minimalists were the guys who flunked out of music school and moved downtown. Yes, they actually said that.
Also, while the violinist who performed the Carter was fairly knowledgeable about the music, and played it beautifully, he could have stood to edit and rehearse his remarks at little better, and the violinist who came up next (actually a violist, the founder of the Downtown Chamber series, who was playing violin on the Reich) made a BIG factual booboo when contrasting Reich and the other well-known minimalists with the composers from "the other side of town" when he referred specifically to Carter as a 12-tone serialist composer — which he absolutely is NOT!
Nonetheless, the music was all well played and enthusiastically presented. It was equally enthusiastically received by the audience, which by and large did not need to have someone stand up to defend the music they were about to hear. This crowd seemed to be of the type who knew what they paid their money to hear and that's why they were there. It was pretty much a full house. The audiences at these concerts tend not to be the stuffy older retired rich folks who sit on their hands and complain about anything that's not Mozart.
This series is not available by subscription, which is a good thing. People buy tickets for concerts they want to hear, not more than a month or two in advance, when they get around to announcing the location and program, about five a year. At $10 a head, including wine, cheese, and crackers at intermission, it's hard to get a better deal.
It's good to know that there is an audience for this kind of thing in Phoenix. My biggest regret is not being part of the inner circle. There was not a single soul we know at this concert, no one to talk to about music. I've gotten so out of touch. I miss not being able to hear this sort of concert a couple of times a week, as in my old school days, when we would compare notes during the intermission, then leave the concert and head over to House of Chin or the Capitol restaurant and argue about the music over beers until they threw us out and shut the place down.
A splendid time was had by all.