The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, February 22, 2003  

When Blogging Takes Over Your Life

I'm beginning to wonder whether I've been blogging for too long. Or at the very least, whether blogging occupies too large a portion of my life. Or whether I'm just some obsessive-compulsive nut. Read on.

Earlier this evening I went to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance in Verizon Hall at the still rather new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

On the program:

Wolfgang Rihm, Spiegel und Fluss, Postlude and Prelude for Orchestra. (U.S. premier.)

Jean Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47. Soloist: Midori.

Arnold Schoenberg, Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5.

A foggy winter night. A beautiful hall. A full house. A terrific program. Choice seats. What more could I ask for? A clear head, for one thing. Despite the wonderful surroundings and beautiful music, I repeatedly found my mind wandering, not to the mysteries of musical genius, nor to the night's awesome displays of artistic expression, but to what I might blog about the experience.

I tried, I tried very hard, to stop thinking about my rinky-dink web sites, my little soapboxes for the world, or that small portion of the world that has made its way here one time or another. Nobody really cares what I think. And, after all, I'm hardly an expert on the subjects at hand. And yet the little voice came back to me again and again: Blog this . . . Blog this. I started forming sentences, even full paragraphs, in my head. A particularly good line, one that has since escaped me, had me checking my pockets, in vain, for a pen.

I noticed my mind drifting during the opening piece by Rihm, but I thought little of it. Spiegel und Fluss ran about 20 minutes and, as is often the case with contemporary compositions, it held little appeal for me. This is not to say that Rihm's is not a brilliant work. It very well may be. It's just that I was lost after the first 10 or 15 seconds, the first measures of the work which conductor Christoph Eschenbach, during his introductory remarks, described as a wood block acting as a metaphor for a ticking clock. To me it sounded more like heavy raindrops -- I suppose the irregularity of the supposed "ticking clock" threw me -- and I couldn't resolve the contradiction.

On, then, to Sibelius. The Violin Concerto (Op. 47) is not a work with which I am familiar, though I may have heard it previously. It is truly a masterpiece, and I was pleased to hear Midori performing as solist. Midori is in her early 30s now, which surprised me. Time surely flies. She's not the child prodigy who made her professional debut in 1982 with the New York Philharmonic, but she remains an impressive performer.

Midori played standing, and without benefit of sheet music, of course. To me she appeared to join the composition itself, bobbing, weaving, bending, swaying, and coursing to the strains of Sibelius's masterpiece. When Midori puts the bow to her Guarnerius del Gesù "ex-Huberman" (1794) -- actually, it's not really her instrument: it's on "lifetime loan" to Midori from the Hayashibara Foundation -- she seems to enter a parallel, or perhaps über, universe that mere mortals like me will never know.

As for Verizon Hall, it's beautiful. It is a wonderful place -- at least from a visual perspective -- to hear the orchestra. That said, and I'm quick to add that I am by no means an expert on the finer, or even the most basic, points of orchestral acoustics, I was a little disappointed. I thought the orchestra sounded muffled, subdued, artificially restrained. Granted, this was the first performance I attended at Verizon, so I wasn't going to rush to judgment, particularly as I consider myself unqualified to render one.

Still, I wondered. So I did what any good blogger would do: I Google'd it.

And I come to find out that my amateurish misgivings about the acoustics in Verizon Hall were the subject of considerable discussion, albeit in more sophisticated and learned language, in the initial reviews of the hall late in 2001. More recently, even after some adjustments were made, Verizon's acoustics were still found wanting, particularly -- Just my luck! -- for someone sitting in, well, the seat I had:

"The most poorly balanced sound is found near the cellolike curves of the walls. Beware, too, of the seats in the rear of the orchestra, facing the conductor. They're instructive for observing the mechanics of a performance, but don't provide a balanced sound picture," wrote Peter Dobrin and David Patrick Stearns last fall in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Figures. But that's fine, really, because now that I've been to the hall I have a clearer understanding of the seating options. I'll make a better choice next time. And, yes, there definitely will be a next time, but I probably won't blog about it.


A few miscellaneous blogger-type observations and/or questions arising from the performance:

Why do orchestras tune off the oboe? Of all instruments, the oboe? I played the oboe for a few years in junior or senior high school, or straddling the two, I can't remember now, and I considered myself lucky to honk out a decent "A" for my own satisfaction, let alone for the rest of the band to match up with. Perhaps Madeleine Kane, herself once a professional oboist, can answer this question?

[Post-publication addendum (February 23): And so she did. (I knew she was hours away from retiring for the day.) Madeleine Begun Kane, oboist, lawyer, comedian, writes: "Orchestras tune to the oboe these days out of tradition. But the original reason was that the oboe was considered the least adjustable instrument of the orchestra. String players almost invariably claim the oboe A is too low, no matter whether it's an A 440, 442, 444, etc. [Ed.: Uh-huh.] And most violinists tend to tune a shade higher than the oboist, because a higher pitch sounds brighter, which they consider preferable. [Ed.: Uh-huh. Excuse me? No, but keep going.] As you can imagine, many a concertmaster and first oboist have nearly come to blows over tuning." (Actually, Mad, the preferred term for the horrific scene you just described, at least around the Review's offices, is "fisticuffs." [See second item.])]

I often look at violists with amazement. Particularly the men. No, not the men generally, but the men with really thick fingers. You see, about ten years ago, in a brief and misguided attempt to pursue one of many roads not taken in my life, I rented a violin and began taking lessons. (My apologies, once again, to my friends and neighbors.) Let me tell you, the violin, once it's in your hands and under your neck, is much smaller than you think. And those strings are amazingly close to each other. So how is it that men (and, presumably, at least some women) with fingers twice the width of mine can navigate the same strings that my skinny fingers found so perplexing?

Is there some sort of union rule that the timpani can only be played by a man with long hair? This has been the case with virtually every American orchestra I have heard during the past 20-plus years. (I should clarify with regard to this evening: I was only wearing one contact lens, so my vision was impaired. The timpani player may have been a woman. But I'm pretty sure I saw a tuxedo jacket and tie back there.)

[Post-publication addendum (February 26): A review of the Philadelphia Orchestra's concert by David Patrick Stearns, based on the performance of Thursday, February 21, was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 22: "Eschenbach Gives Color to Rihm."]

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