Saturday, October 24, 2015

Screened Out

The venue was first class: Yo-Yo Ma has said of Bass Hall that it was one of those "rare halls in which the music heard by the audience is the same as that heard by the performer." The performer was world renown: Marc-André Hamelin is a pianist with 9 Grammy nominations, a performer about whom The New York Times wrote, "Is it possible for a pianist to be too good?" The program was ambitious: Mozart's "Sonata in D Major," Debussy's "Images, Book II," Schubert's "Sonata in B-flat Major," plus Hamelin's own "Variations on a Theme by Paganini." And it was as pure a performance as possible: on the stage was a Steinway, a piano bench and nothing else.

But there was a screen.

Hanging upstage center was a large 16-foot projection surface, white with a black border. It provided an otherwise unharmonious note in the beautiful cream and rose colored hall. I had bought my ticket knowing it would be there, but hadn't really thought about the implications. Yet it was both the reason I could go, as well as the reason I wouldn't have gone.

It was the reason I could go in that it made it possible to buy a cheap ticket for such an event. You see, my seat was in the ninth row of the orchestra, but on the right hand side of the house. When I stopped by the box office, they offered me that location for the ridiculous price of $20. When I expressed surprise, and inquired if it was somehow obstructed, they told it had a clear view and was acoustically as good as any in the house. But with the piano oriented left to right, that put the strings towards me. Translation for those less musically inclined: I wouldn't be able to see the pianist's hands.

For a true aficionado, this would be unacceptable. Hamelin is a master, and watching his technique is part of the experience. While I would be able to hear perfectly, all I would be able to see while he performed was his body swaying side to side, his face focused on what I could not see. It would be as if you went to a golf match, and had a waist high fence between you and Phil Michelson. You would certainly know what was going on, but would never see it with your own eyes. For all I knew, Hamelin could be kneading taffy while his latest CD was tracked in the hall.

But no matter: for me it was about the sound. The girl in the box office told me in order to make the seats on the right more attractive, there would be a screen on which to see his hands. I assumed it would be in some location where it didn't intrude on the performance itself. What I hadn't counted on was it being front and center, attracting my eyes like a moth to a flame.

I've hit this before. At basketball games or rock concerts, screens give the audience perfect close-ups of all that happens. To be fair, they usually give you a much better view versus the live action. But if you watch it, you begin to wonder why you are there in the first place. Arguably, you can get the same experience, and at far less cost and with easier bathroom accessibility, by watching at home. True, you miss the smell of spilled beer and people walking in front of you and obnoxious fans screaming next to you. But at least you can say you saw it live.

As Hamelin sat down, the screen dissolved to a close-up of the keyboard. He began to play, the music rolled over the hall. I tried to focus on him, but I kept getting drawn to the screen. Yes, his hands were amazing. However, watching them removed me from being there. I kept thinking that since the concert was being webcast, I could have just stayed in my hotel room, and seen and heard the same thing.

I had an idea. I reached into the pocket of my jacket, and pulled out my baseball cap. I slipped it on and adjusted it low in the front. Now when I looked up, I saw a massive black piano, a man in a jacket, and nothing more. No screen intruded. And without that distraction, at least to my ears, the music suddenly sounded better.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves any live music. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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