January 6, 2004
By Robert Commanday
Preparing for instrumental concerts is trickier, because there aren't any words to guide you. Except, of course, the program notes so it's as well to see whether the presenter of the concert is the sort that posts program notes in advance online. A surprising number now do. The San Francisco Symphony, for example, puts up program notes for its performances well in advance. The Symphony's note writers are very fine, so if you're attending an SF Symphony concert, you might as well look up the notes in advance. And if you haven't time to read them before settling into your seat, by all means do it afterwards.
Whether to listen to recordings of pieces you're about to hear is one of those permanent questions. Over five years of reviewing, I've ultimately settled on a working arrangement. If I'm reviewing a performance of a piece I remember dimly, I'll listen to a recording of it if I've got access to one several days before the performance. But if it's a piece I know well, I'll listen to several recordings, as many as I can stand. The reason is that in the first case I'm just trying to remember the contours of the piece, but in the second I'm trying to remember the range of things that can be done with music I already know well.
If you read musical notation, and can get your hands on a score and there are more scores in the Bay Area's public libraries than you might think then check out what pieces you can before hearing them. But bringing scores to concerts doesn't always work well. Try to follow a large orchestra while also following a large orchestral score and you're doomed to frustration; you'll be flipping pages every six seconds, and missing half the music purely by trying to keep your place.
With chamber music it's somewhat different; anyone who can read music can follow a string-quartet score, and there are ordinarily four or so systems on facing pages, so you have time to follow the music and understand it. And having a score in hand is especially valuable if you don't know the piece well not so much for making sense of unfamiliar music while you're hearing it as for fixing particular moments in your memory just afterward. Once tie a particular nuance to a particular place in a score and you aren't likely ever, ever to forget it.
©2004 By Robert Commanday and Michelle Dulak