I didn’t walk out

On Monday night to the Labeque Sisters, appearing as part of the SSO’s International Pianists in Recital series.

My friends from the Dulwich Hill gang, who usually come to this series, stayed away. Judging from the hall, others had stayed away including (or so it seemed to me) the usual SSO apparatchiky. Many others, however, had come. Apart from the empty seats below, the hall was packed (to coin a phrase) to the second tier. (This also included what seemed to me a slightly higher than usual lesbian turnout – that is, I saw a few lesbians known to me who I don’t usually see at these concerts or other concerts.)

I had thought of exchanging my ticket for another series: Avan Yu with the SSO in their Mozart series came to mind, but I was drawn to the first half, especially Debussy’s En blanc et noir, coupled with the 2-piano ur-version of Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole.

When I got to my seat, my neighbour told me the Debussy was “off,” replaced by Philip Glass’s Four Movement for Two Pianos. This had been announced by an insert in the program, which had eluded me, as I had brought my series program from home. The reason for the switch is unclear to me: the Debussy was played in Melbourne the week before.

This changed the balance of the program. I preferred the Ravel and I still would have preferred the Debussy but there was much that was admirable in the Glass.

The second half was a suite (if I can call it that: you might really call it “highlights” though “Officer Krupke” didn’t get a look-in, probably because that is a verbal rather than a musical highlight) from West Side Story with the addition of two percussionists. This attracted me less and was the reason for my initial reservations. I’ve seen K and M in their foot-stamping keyboard-pounding Jazzy mode and it is less interesting to me either musically – a bit like, in different ways, other manifestations of Euro[crossover]jazz such as Claude Bolling or Friedrich Gulda in his Jazz mode – or pianistically.

In her program notes, Yvonne Frindley boldly and I think pre-emptively claimed this was “music in the tradition of the nineteenth-century opera paraphrases.” I’m not so sure of that. For one thing, it was quite a lot longer. There is the question of paraphrase vs transcription. But ultimately I think it comes down to two matters – one a question of context and the other of format.

To take the first, paraphrases and transcriptions come from the era when it was a paraphrase or transcription or probably nothing. West Side Story has been recorded and filmed and propagated in that way.

Secondly, part of the point of the nineteenth century paraphrase was that the one artist would mould together his [sic] own version of a work for larger forces. This was one the one hand a feat, but also an act of artistic subjectivism. Of course, ensemble transcriptions and arrangements of popular theatrical works were also performed, but less, I think, as creatures of the concert hall (the Vienna society which performed works in reductions was a different and special case). I don’t think that you saw piano duet or duo performances in concerts: that was something you did at home. To me, ensemble arrangements are more in the tradition of Baden Baden or Karlsbad/Kalovy Vary than of the nineteenth-century opera paraphrases.

I’m not going to fault the playing. There were lots of nifty bits which I liked and even some quite beautiful bits – mostly the quieter parts. But as the arrangement went on, it was the concept which left me wondering: why am I sitting here listening to this medley?

Others have been more enthusiastic. Harriett Cunningham wrote in the SMH/Fairfax press:

The duo’s own version of Bernstein’s West Side Story took the performance to another level again…Percussionist Gonzalo Grau and drummer Raphael Seguinier were a grand match for the piano duo….

The Labeques were by turn ballerinas and boogie-woogie jazz pianists, ripping into the dangerous crush of Mambo and then picking out the central fugue in Cool with classical restraint. America, complete with flamenco hand clapping, foot stomping and box-slapping from Grau, was the show-stopping highlight, but by then the audience had given up on standard concert etiquette. They loved it, so they cheered.

That’s true. There was woman a few seats away from me who gave a cheer after every fast and loud number, and she was not alone. But that was not the only reaction.

Just after “Tonight,” an older gent a couple of rows in front of me, a fixture at this series, stood up and started walking down the aisle to the exit. As the audience’s inevitable applause (“Tonight” is loud and fast and the first act closer in the original) subsided, he spoke out. “Boo!” he declaimed, not uncivilly (unless you think a Boo itself uncivil) but definitely. “I don’t want to stay.” And he left.

I admired his courage.

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