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Broken Viola, Ruined Concert, Exciting Time Had by All

June 10, 2011

Let me preface this by saying that this is not a review.

The other night, I attended a concert of new viola music. I was there for several reasons, but first and foremost was that violist Charlton Lee was playing a piece by me (it was awesome). The concert was part of Pamela Z’s Room concert series, and was called “Longer Burning” (as in the joke: “What’s the difference between a violin and a viola? A viola burns longer”). The concert featured three violists: Charlton Lee, Hank Dutt, and JHNO (aka John Eichenseer). Pamela Z also brought a piece to the table, and the concert ended with a group improvisation. In addition to the music mentioned above, there were offerings from Reza Vali, Edmund Campion, and Nils Bultmann.

But this is not a real review. At this concert, something incredibly dramatic occurred — something completely new for me. One row in front of me, an older couple was dissatisfied with JHNO’s performance. Early on, they began critiquing the piece aloud to each other. Eventually they grew louder and more disruptive until eventually the man began to loudly clap and ironically yell “Bravo!” to encourage JHNO to stop. The audience became uncomfortable. The woman was less ironic, but no less harsh, and cried “Stop!” and “Get off the stage!” JHNO then became upset, threw his viola to the ground, and stormed off. The viola was broken, and the electronics were awkwardly continued until one of the other people involved in the show slowly unplugged the equipment.

The viola was broken? On stage? I swear to you, that this is not the setup for a joke. It actually happened.

What was the piece that caused this outburst? Well, honestly, I still feel that I haven’t heard it at all. Basically, JHNO laid a bed of electronics that became a slowly morphing texture. I imagined that he would begin to solo on top of it, but he didn’t get that far. The piece sounded as though it had barely begun. I wasn’t impressed yet, but it certainly could have gone somewhere — and didn’t deserve ridicule.

This ridicule came from two successful, established, and respected musicians in the Bay Area, even nationally, one of whom has quite the history with new music. The response to this ridicule was impressive. One recent alum from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (Morgan O’Shaughnessey) walked in front of the audience and requested an “honest” round of applause for JHNO. Intermission came right after, and people went a little crazy. One audience member offered to pay Mr. and Mrs. Disruptive to leave. Another began to get in the man’s face aggressively, swearing at him and pestering him. Eventually, Joan Jeanrenaud, who also had a piece on the program, walked up and successfully defused the situation. She pulled Mr. Disruptive into a conversation, partially on concert etiquette, and partially about moving on. In a conversation about the event, Pamela was quite clear:

"I feel that the behavior of the couple was extremely childish. The level of inappropriateness could only be attributed to a child who doesn't know any better. They were in the very front row, so they could easily have left the room and there was a lobby where they could have hung out. And actually my studio assistant approached them while they were heckling and asked if they would leave if they didn't enjoy it, and then I went up to them, but in both cases they refused and it [the heckling] got worse. It was so bizarre that it seemed like a staged event. After JNHO left, the whole audience stood up and gave him this huge applause that I felt went on for, like, two minutes. And then when they ceased clapping, members of the audience stood up and started giving testimonials as to how great JNHO's performance was and how awful they thought the couple was. And I was, like 'What is happening?' I mean this is a small room with, like seats for 45 people and a little riser in front. And it was quite a high-energy event at that point. There was a weird exhilaration in the room that came from this disturbance. I'm just glad that JNHO came back. And he was such a good sport. I mean, after he cooled down, he was willing to come back in the second half, even though those people were still sitting in the front row, and he was almost at their feet playing the tambura in another piece. We're trying to push boundaries [at the Room Series] and [this incident] is a little symbolic of how far we've pushed them. I'm pretty sure that most of my listeners are very aware of people who make music through layers of sound that might sound like noise to the uninitiated. But it was interesting to root out those who weren't."

So What Do I Think ABout It?

Obviously, Mr. and Mrs. Disruptive were out of line. While I’m impressed at their extreme emotional response, I found their lack of inhibition, especially from musicians in the field, to be disturbing. I was saddened to see so little respect for art, for someone trying to show something. To hear those remarks from someone who was such a model pedagogue pained me. For obvious reasons, I think it’s inappropriate to share this man’s name, but he has worked with some of the most important new-music specialists in the Bay Area.

On the other hand, JHNO probably overreacted. I don’t know, but I suspect he regrets the loss of his viola. You might suggest that someone in the audience could have shown Mr. and Mrs. Disruptive the door, but I believe that would have only made the situation worse. The sole person who had any control at all was JHNO. I’m not saying that I would have done this (I hope I never find out), but I believe that he could have stopped playing and politely requested that Mr. and Mrs. Disruptive either leave or give him a chance. That would not necessarily have worked, but it had a better chance of doing so than someone in the audience going that route. Mr. and Mrs. D. clearly felt that they had performed a service to the audience by breaking JHNO’s spirit.

The truth is, seeing such hate and anger in the new-music world was depressing. I admit I’m a little bit of a young hippie; I really came to music out of love, out of pleasure, out of community. Sure, I spend a lot of time at concerts that I honestly don’t enjoy that much, yet I still love going to them. I like being exposed to new things, I like being surrounded by interested (and interesting) people, and I have found that community in new music. I feel that few people were being open at the show, from Mr. and Mrs. D., who actually shut down a performance in progress, to the aggressive audience that almost appeared ready for a lynching. I am grateful to Joan Jeanrenaud for defusing the situation, and I am grateful to Pamela Z for comically encouraging unhappy audience members to quietly leave.

The Room series is truly a concert series of extreme openness. Every concert I’ve gone to (a paltry number, in view of the quality of the performances) showcases minds ready to experience anything. Pamela Z, the architect of the series, evinces a positivity about all life that we can only hope the audience shares for the future.

I’m kinda wishing I had a punch line along about now. ...

Matthew Cmiel holds degrees in composition from The Curtis Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has received numerous commissions, including one from Maestra Marin Alsop for the Cabrillo New Music Festival. Founder of the ensemble Formerly Known as Classical and The Hot Air Music Festival, he is currently the Director of Orchestras at San Francisco's Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and co-director of the ensemble After Everything.