Berg Reception

I should probably create a whole separate blog to catalog reactions to my practicing of Berg’s Chamber Concerto. The elderly lady living down the hall from me, though often friendly, merely scowls these days when we meet by the elevator; she sullenly awaits more euphonious days. I am offending her, personally. But another young fellow’s mixed reaction was quite enjoyable. I closed and locked my door, and found him standing there, and he said “you’re the guy playing the piano all the time right?”

There was no denying it. I was caught red-handed. Only seconds ago I was retrograde-inversioning away (quit your quibbling, it’s close enough to a real word). I nodded.

It’s funny how some people feel the need to reassure you, without knowing you, that you are actually capable at your craft. As a musician, I suppose, you are by definition “handicapped,” provisional. He said, channeling Ward Cleaver, “You know it’s pretty good. Good work.” (Pregnant pause) “There’s some pretty strange stuff you’re playing though, pretty disjointed…”

I beamed at him. “Yes, isn’t it wild?”

He slowly asked, “Ummm. What is it?”

My best, enthusiastic, used-car-salesman smile: “It’s Alban Berg.” (No recognition) “One of those German Expressionists.” (Vague glimmer)

My enthusiasm caught him by surprise. He assumed (perhaps?) I was playing it out of obligation. My smile, the sense of delight in Berg I was trying to communicate to him, changed the expression on his face, from assurance to concern; he suddenly looked like the court psychiatrist in Law & Order assessing the competence of a mass murderer. Our downward elevator ride thus passed in uneasy silence, with several sidelong glances. To exacerbate the situation, I started humming one of the piece’s many disturbed waltz-tunes (I find myself wondering: can other dances be doomed? Or only waltzes?). I smiled at him again, especially wide, as he exited the elevator and (is this my imagination?) ran for the exit: 91st Street, escape.

And today, in Logan, Utah, I was practicing wildly in a very nice member of the faculty’s studio (and I had just finished proudly scrawling “Arnold Schoenberg” over a particular phrase); but his students were gathering outside for their impending studio class. At some point, they decided enough was enough, and a firm knock was heard. And in flounced perhaps seven girls, mostly blonde, smiling, and apologetic to interrupt me, but they had to have studio class. “It sounds good, though,” one said, as if I might think they were giving me the hook. They looked at me sympathetically. I smiled again, a complicated smile this time, and packed my things. The same one piped up, “that thing you were practicing, that’s really … interesting.” The others nodded, oddly. “What is it?” I rattled it off, “The Berg Chamber Concerto, for Piano Violin and Winds.” As so often happens, they were bored with the answer, perhaps a bit annoyed by its exactitude. I’m not sure what I should have said instead, how I should have played it. As it was, they looked confused, their eyes variously averted around the small studio, and I made my exit… No no I wanted to tell them, this is one amazing piece. But the door shut behind me and I had to walk back in the Utah sunshine singing doomed dances to myself.

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  1. Davei
    Posted November 10, 2005 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I participated in a performance of the Chamber Concerto as a a clainetist years ago. Our pianist came down with severe migraines while he was learning the score. I have to admit it was blindingly difficult, but what a neat experience to play such a great piece.

  2. nobleviola
    Posted November 11, 2005 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of when I was preparing the viola part for the Boulez Le Marteau sans Maitre. I was listening to a recording of the piece before I began wading in to settle on fingerings, etc., and my wife, who is also a musician, said “is that the piece or are they just tuning?” It was fun to play, though.

  3. andrew
    Posted November 11, 2005 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I am a long time reader, and have been moved many times to comment on your tremendous writing, but for some reason never have.. This wonderful post finally pushed me over the “edge”..

    I think for anyone who has a “public” but “exceptionally rare” full time professional vocation, there are stock “reactions” in the questions of people who meet you/encounter you doing what you do..

    either that or they sometimes just go “tilt” intellectually and just stammer, never having encountered “in person” a bird of your feather..

    I am a professional athlete in a fairly obscure sport, and I get the same 3 or 4 questions asked of me all the time, and my neighbors also react to me with quzzical & approving amusement/confusion that echos exactly what you experience… even though the specifics of what we both do are so wildly different, not just apples to oranges, but more like apples to alligators…

    there is a human commonality to your writing, and even though your blog is subtitled “the glamourous life & thoughts of a concert musician” it is still a great read for those of us who don’t recognise the artistic subtlety of what you do (alban berg who?) but deeply appriciate the humanity and thoughtfulness that you do it with… and sometimes we find echoes to our own strange lives..

    again, thanks for the words.. your post also indicates you are in Logan, right down the road from my own geographic location….. do you have a performance schedule online somewhere?

  4. Anonymous
    Posted November 11, 2005 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    I love the thought of you and Berg scaring the bejezus out of the blondes of Utah.


  5. Steve Hicken
    Posted November 13, 2005 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Yes; a performance schedule and an e-mail address would be very good additions to this blog.

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