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Pauline Lerner

February 22, 2005 at 5:29 AM

A new concert hall opened near my home a few weeks ago, and I heard two great performances there this weekend. The concert hall itself is interesting. Suspended way above the stage are several glass or clear plastic structures that look like large shields. I guessed that they were there for acoustic purposes, and I later found out that my guess was right. They scatter the sound waves to make the sound go all the way to the back of the hall and to make the sound warmer. The system of shields was designed by computer simulation, taking into account such factors as the size and shape of the hall and the materials which the walls and furnishings were made of. However, the computer simulation involves a number of assumptions, and only use of the system in “real life” can tell what really gives the best sound. Of course, human ears, especially the discerning ears of musicians and music lovers, give the ultimate judgment. Each of the local dignitaries who got onstage before the performances to make short speeches in praise of donors used a mike. The musicians were not miked. I sat in Peasant’s Heaven, at the top tier at the very back of the hall, where the seats are cheapest, and the music sounded great.

Saturday night I heard Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony. She played the Prokofiev Concerto, which I wasn’t familiar with, and she did it beautifully. Her first few notes were so sweet that I felt like I was melting away. There were other emotions in the music, and she expressed them well. Even in the most “warlike” or “gutsy” sound passages, she retained something of that initial sweetness. Parts of the concerto were highly technical, but she made it all look and sound so easy. I asked someone what he thought of the performance, and he said, “Subdued.” I could see what he meant. There some passages that were very difficult technically, and she played them smoothly, but without pyrotechnics or showing off. This music is Prokofiev, not Beethoven, Brahms, or Tchaik. Even the orchestra played in a subdued way. When I got home, I listened to some recordings of her playing the Mendelssohn and Brahms concerti, and I felt that her sweet sound fit these pieces especially well.

On my way to Peasants’ Heaven, I saw a sign saying that CD signing would take place during the intermission. Of course, I bought a few CDs and had her sign them. They will make good gifts for friends. In addition to all her classical CDs, they had one with alternate rock music. Hilary looks like her photos but prettier, without the heavy make up and dramatic poses. She looks young, pretty, sweet, and wholesome. She looks just like the kind of person I feel I know from reading her blog. For the performance she wore a long skirt with a short sleeved ballet top, but when she was signing CDs, she put a sweater on. I thought of the thread that was on this website recently concerning what you like to wear when you practice, but I didn’t say anything to her about it.

After the intermission, the orchestra played Brahms Third Symphony. The first thing I noticed when they started was the “big” sound, very different from the subdued sound of the Prokofiev. The Brahms just picked me up and carried me away. I’ve had so many troubles and so many things on my mind lately, but this music took me out of myself and swept me along. The conductor was a woman named Marin Alsop, the first woman conductor I’ve seen in concert. I’m sure that some of the credit for the orchestra’s great performance belongs to her.

Sunday I heard Itzhak Perlman with a piano accompanist named Rohan DeSilva. His first piece was Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 21 in E minor, K.304. I was surprised that it didn’t move me much. The second piece was the familiar Kreutzer Sonata by Beethoven. That was fantastic. Next was Zwilich’s Episodes for Violin and Piano. I was prepared to not like it because it was written in the twentieth century, but I was surprised again. It just blew me away. The last piece on the program was Smetana’s From the Homeland. There was only one thing that I found troubling about the sound from my vantage point in Peasants’ Heaven. The piano sounded too loud relative to the violin. Perhaps the acoustic “shields” need to be adjusted a bit. I watched Perlman through my opera glasses. At first I saw nothing unusual to comment on. His technique appeared textbook perfect. After a while, though, I noticed one quirk. Frequently, at the end of an upbow, his index finger lifted just a bit off the stick of the bow. I have no idea whether this was of any consequence, since his sound was fantastic. Perlman proceeded to play five encores. He told the audience what they were and told some anecdotes about them. Unfortunately, I could not hear his spoken words too clearly. I asked the people sitting near me, but they didn’t hear any more than I did. I later found out that the acoustics of music and speech are quite different; a concert hall has to be designed differently from a lecture hall. Anyway, I’ll identify what he played as well as I can, and if anyone who reads this knows or can infer something else, please let me know. First were two virtuoso showpieces by Kreisler, and he played them like a true virtuoso. The next piece, he told us, was a modern piece. He help up a sheaf of music and added, “It was modern when such things cost only sixty cents. Here’s the price.” Then he read from the description on the paper, which said that this music is very difficult to play and should only be attempted by outstanding violinists. Everyone laughed. The he played it and – wow! It would take a violinist to appreciate how difficult it really was. It was full of rapid bowings, double stops, spiccato, and right hand pizz mixed in. I was glad that I had my opera glasses with me. His left hand movements were equally awesome. He played passages at the very end of the fingerboard. In other passages, he made lightning quick shifts from the first position to the very upward regions of the fingerboard and back again. This was virtuoso pyrotechnics and showing off. The best thing about it, though, was that it was really sparkling, pretty music. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear him say the name of the piece. The next piece was by Gluck. It sounded so familiar, but I couldn’t hear and didn’t remember the name. It is a popular encore piece. The last piece was a transcription by Wieniawski for piano and violin of something originally written for two violins (not Bach). All in all, Perlman covered such a range of emotions and techniques, and all of them were stunning and beautiful. I’m so glad I was there.

When I saw Perlman through my opera glasses, he looked older than he does in many photos I’ve seen. In some ways, that’s not unusual, since we all age. However, some things gave me concern. He looked more tired, and his shoulders were more hunched over, than a few years ago. I wonder whether his physical handicap has exacerbated the effects of aging. I remembered reading in Carla Leurs’s blog that he was teaching her to keep the muscles near her armpits relaxed by having her play her violin while leaning forward. He must be familiar with the problem from his personal experience. How wonderful that he can start with a handicap, learn how to play beautifully by working around it, and then, best of all, pass on what he has learned to his able bodied students. I am not a religious person, but I remember something from the Bible that says, more or less, “Out of your weakness shall come your strength.”

I thought that the magic of live music had ended for the three day weekend, but there was more on Monday. More later…

P.S. 2/25/05

I learned some more about the “shields” above the stage which reflect sound. They are called an “acoustic cloud,” which is comprised of 43 clear acrylic panels. The panels can be moved up and down, right and left, and at any angle. I’m not the only one who thought that the piano sounded louder than the violin. The music critic who writes for the Washington Post agreed with me. I hope that the panels are positioned better in the future.

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