Bruckner and Haydn, SSO

On Friday to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct the SSO in Haydn, Symphony No 100 (the “Military”) and Bruckner 3. YN-S made quite a big impact when he substituted for an indisposed Lorin Maazel in 2005, and on the strength of that came back and was well received in 2007. Consequently, this program, focussing on the conductor and without a soloist, was promoted under the rubric “He’s back!”

This was one of a series of 7 concerts for which the SSO was advertising 2500 B and C reserve tickets for $25 each (the other program, including the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, was demeaningly even if necessarily touted as including “music from the hit film Babe“). By my reckoning that’s an average of 350 or so B and C reserve tickets per concert, which means the houses must have been looking pretty patchy. In fact it was still pretty patchy: the orchestra had made no attempt to sell any organ gallery or choir stalls seats. I suppose it is possible this leads to a saving on ushers. If I were trying to draw in new concert-goers, I would sell them these seats behind but close to the orchestra before I put them way up the back of the circle (where, amongst other things, the air can be very fuggy indeed and, more importantly, the music will be much quieter than people are accustomed to at home on their stereos).

I’m still a bit mystified why this concert hadn’t attracted a larger audience. My best guess (guess is the vogue word for this post) is that people actually like to hear a soloist. Maybe the relative unfamiliarity of the Bruckner also played a part.

My neighbours (on one side), a couple I guess in their 30s, had come on some kind of special offer. He (I’ll call him NN) told me that his only other symphony experience had been the Lord of the Rings symphony, which he had found very disappointing. It emerged that NN was a devotee (and in some way I would guess a practitioner) of the theatre. NN explained his lack of concert-going in part to his allegiance to that form. Since I’m making so many guesses about strangers, I’d hazard a further guess that some of this allegiance is sustained by comps, which probably makes symphony concerts look even more expensive by comparison.

NN enjoyed the Haydn. He thought the traditional non-applause between movements “sucks” – a view for which he found authority in the program note’s account of the original London performance. From my observation I’d say they both found the Bruckner rather heavy going towards the end. I mentioned what a student of mine years ago (in fact, 20 years ago, I’m shocked to realise) described to me (on the authority of his horn teacher, I think) as Bruckner’s “abortion climaxes.” We agreed that Bruckner was a bit of a tease with the sense of an ending, “as is Shakespeare,” NN added, keen to keep his favoured form’s end up.

One little thing which emerged from our (entirely amiable) conversations is the resentment of those in the theatre world, where permanent jobs for performers are practically non-existent, towards the more lavishly subsidised and permanently employed in the musical (specifically: orchestral) and operatic worlds. NN told me that Opera Australia gets half of some unspecified pool of grants funding – I suppose he meant performing arts government subsidies in Australia. I don’t think that can be right, but it shows how a myth can stick. Certainly, orchestras, in particular, are expensive to maintain because of the need to maintain, as an ensemble, a large group of fairly highly and specifically trained people (many of them these days trained to an international postgraduate level).

However lavishly subsidised different creative endeavours are at the centre, they all have that shady area at the edge where people are giving it a go or conversely forced to grow up and move on, get a day job (or not quit it). If the world always seems to be fuller of starving actors than musicians waiting table or working at the call centre that’s probably because the barriers to entry to acting are lower than to instrumental performance.

Not that I allowed myself to be distracted by such mundane details during the concert. I too enjoyed the Haydn (a fairly robust but still “historically” informed interpretation) and there was lots to admire in the Bruckner, though my own unfamiliarity with it means I cannot really make any serious assessment of the interpretation other than on a basis of preconceptions as to Bruckner style. I cannot remember hearing a live performance of this symphony before whereas I can certainly recall hearing B4, 7 and 8 more than once. It is possible I may have heard B3 too, though, as a friend said to me after, if you’d heard it before you’d surely remember it. I am reasonably certain that I was not in Sydney when it was last played here, so it would need to be elsewhere or the time before.

The friend who made the after-comment referred to above [that’s affidavit language: I’m too lazy to expunge it] told me that he had put in some solid listening to the Naxos two-disc set whilst driving around in his car which he does to attend to a franchise of internet access terminals in shopping centres. Funnily enough, the car is probably the place where (since I stopped living alone) I listen to the most music, but I just don’t spend all that much time in the car. I stopped buying CDs years ago other than the occasional impulse and I mostly rely on the serendipity of broadcasts for my listening diet. Mostly, I don’t choose to listen to recordings before I hear a performance because I don’t want to be measuring a live performance against the perfection and multiple repetitions of a recording (listening after is different). This a bit of a dilemma not unlike whether you should read the book first before you see the movie. The same ought to apply to the Haydn, which was last performed by the SSO an astonishing 19 years ago under Stuart Challender. But then, I certainly had much more youthful exposure to recorded Haydn symphonies which it is too late now to undo, and I have even played through quite a few of them in four-handed arrangements.

Sometimes last Friday I wondered if the brass big moments in the Bruckner were a bit too big (I hanker for a more sedate orchestra where fortissimos remain within a certain moderation: the Dresden and Vienna orchestras are more like that, just for example), but there were plenty of very fine quiet moments as well, including from the trumpets, so it was by no means all blare. I hope that Mr Nézet-Séguin (already appointed to succeed Gerghiev at Rotterdam) will be back soon, though it looks as though the orchestra may have to rely on more than his return to market those concerts.

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