Pipe down, BSO isn't sing-along

Etiquette: Movements and vocals in a concert hall belong on stage, not coming from the spectator sitting next to you

Performing Arts

May 29, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

You may remember Lucy's line to Ethel after Ricky and Fred refused to go along with one of their schemes - "Don't you wish there was something else to marry besides men?"

During the last two Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts I attended, I found myself asking a similar sort of question - "Don't you wish there was something else to perform for besides people?"

Maybe it was just bad karma, but at both concerts, I was surrounded by folks who managed, with what seemed like maniacal determination, to make the experience difficult.

Audience misbehavior is hardly news, of course. Precious few concert halls or opera houses in this country are free of distractions. But, until recently, I had found nuisances from Baltimore audiences to be minimal, so these encounters were doubly annoying.

At Meyerhoff Symphony Hall two weeks ago, I had a hummer to the front of me, a hummer to the back of me. It was not exactly a typical hum-inducing program, either. How many tunes from Haydn's Symphony No. 1 can you hum? That's what I thought.

No, these two hummers weren't being inspired by familiar melodies, but by melodies, period. In addition to chiming in at various points in the Haydn work, one or both of these vocal artists accompanied the orchestra in Schumann's Symphony No. 2 and added an extra solo line to Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3.

While the humming man in front was the absent-minded type, whose efforts were intermittent and usually brief, the humming woman behind was very focused. She harmonized - quite accurately, by the way - with the bass or melody line for long stretches.

And, even though conductor Daniel Hege was doing just fine by himself, she helpfully slapped out all the rhythms, even in slow movements, on her thigh to help the orchestra keep time.

More trouble

The following week (sitting in a different spot in the hall), I found myself behind a very sophisticated-looking couple. The two made it through a Haydn cello concerto without incident, but then came Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.

I knew I was in trouble before the performance began; the husband started asking his wife when they could leave.

I hoped they would beat it early on, but, no, they stayed for the whole symphony.

The wife never did stop fidgeting; given that she had at least a dozen thin gold bracelets on one arm, this meant a little chorus of "Jingle Bells" almost every time she changed positions.

The husband stole repeated glances at his watch, and would whisper something to his spouse after each peek. They behaved like two bored kids, but, by the color of their hair, were clearly old enough to know better.

Things got worse.

Midway through the first movement of the Bruckner, Hege had a little misfortune. Some part of his concert attire - I think it was a cummerbund strap - broke loose and began popping out between the tails of his coat.

All right, it did look funny. I confess I thought for an instant about the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when the Lion had trouble with his tail as he and Dorothy's other pals sneak into the Wicked Witch of the West's castle.

But it was just for an instant. The deep drama of Bruckner's music pulled me right back in. Not so for my pesky little couple. They got the giggles, and kept them for a very long time. When that finally wore off, they went back to fidgeting and whispering.

There's more.

A woman next to me, who, to her credit, tried to shush the giggly duo at one point, waited until the very last few measures of the symphony - when Bruckner, Hege and the BSO were all at their most profoundly beautiful - to make her move. The quieter the music became, the more she started to prepare herself for heading to the parking lot, extracting something from her purse, fussing with something on the floor, putting something back into her purse.

When the performance ended, and all three of these people instantly burst into hearty applause, I was dumbfounded. Why were they clapping - because it was over? It certainly couldn't have been the music-making.

Why do such people go to concerts? I wish I knew. I also wish they wouldn't invariably be sitting near me.

Zinman, Greenberg missed

Two important figures in BSO history were missing from last week's concerts.

Former music director David Zinman had been scheduled to lead the program, but bowed out May 16, citing exhaustion. (He had the energy to conduct the New York Philharmonic on the 17th, 18th and 22nd, however.)

Concertmaster Herbert Green- berg, who recently announced he was retiring from the BSO after 20 years, was absent as well; a symphony spokesman said a case of tendinitis was to blame.

Since Greenberg was already scheduled to miss the remaining two programs this season due to commitments at the Aspen Music Festival, it looks as if the BSO concerts May 18-20 were his final appearances as concertmaster.

It would be a pity if Greenberg's devoted tenure were to end without a proper send-off, a salute from management, his colleagues and the public.

Four strings of talent

If you haven't noticed already, the Baltimore area is a hotbed of classical guitar activity. A recent manifestation is the formation of the Peabody Guitar Quartet, comprised of graduate students at the Peabody Conservatory - Christopher Dunn, Rafael Padron, Keishi Sumi and Akiko Sumi.

The ensemble is working on a demo CD now in hopes of getting future concert; plans for a commercial CD also are in the works.

The quartet will performing works by Boccherini and Leo Brouwer during a "Thank You Concert and Gala Reception" at 7:30 p.m. June 9 at Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia.

Also on the program will be violinist Minjae Kim, pianist Eric Zuber and the guitar/cello duo of Paul and Karena Moeller. The event, in honor of patrons and volunteers of the Candlelight Concerts' 28th season, requires a donation ($15 is the minimum). Call 410-715-0034.

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