Saturday Night Loser's Club, Vol. CCLXXV: Audience Choice Edition

In keeping with self's status as the writer of the most pointlessly trivial regular DK series, during a week of a Libyan dictator on the run, caving on smog regulation, and the I-P conflict disturbing a London concert, what better topic to waste DK bandwidth on than.....a classical concert where the audience gets to choose the program, on the spot? No joke; it happened last night in London (the same series where the disrupted concert occurred the night before, but that's for another day, maybe). And while there's no "audience choice" here regarding SNLC blog subject :-P , there is a chance for the few of you who read this blog to participate, after a fashion, by following one pdf link and posting a choice from it. More below the flip.... The classical concert in question, Prom 64 of the 2011 Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, involved the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO) and its music director, Iván Fischer. It's one thing to have a classical concert where the audience doesn't know what the orchestra will play, but the orchestra and conductor know, of course, since it's a difficult enough thing to get 100 people to play together well even a familiar piece of music. The element of surprise is for the audience, and a test of their open-mindedness. The BFO has actually been doing this for years at their concerts in Hungary, around Christmas time, what they call a titok-koncert, or a bag of surprises concert:

"The "bag of surprises" concerts inaugurated seven years ago have turned out to be a tremendous success, proving that there are plenty of people who, without even knowing the works or performers involved, are prepared to join in the fun, and who have enough faith in the concert organiser and conductor Iván Fischer to commit to an "adventure". We primarily recommend these bag of surprises concerts to those of our audience who are curious, young at heart, and intrigued by secrets."

However, it's another thing altogether when nobody, not the audience, not the conductor, not even the orchestra know in advance what the program (OK, since this took place in the UK, programme) will be. In this article in The Independent this week, Jessica Duchen explains it for you:

"Here's how it works. On the way in, everyone attending will be given a list of around 300 pieces. Fischer will introduce the concert from the podium, asking everyone to look at the list and decide on a work, in case they are the lucky person selected to pick one.

Next, seat numbers are stowed in the bell of the tuba and three members of the audience are requested, at random, to go on stage and draw out the lucky winners. The people in those seats then get to choose a piece each."

In the program booklet (which also contains the list and ballot), Fischer wryly noted:

"We may not achieve perfection – we may even need to start all over again if things fall apart. But the plus-side is that you can choose what you want to hear. All of you will have the list of 285 choices: you make your pick, our (nervous) librarian will rush out from the stage, bring back and distribute the parts and we will begin to play."

However, if you know anything about The Proms, there are about 1400 people (if the house is full) who don't have seats, i.e. the standing room people, the Promenaders, a.k.a. the Prommers. For them, or at least the people in the Arena (or as Stephen Sondheim called it, the mosh pit), this is how they get involved (bonus loser points for you if you catch the Monty Python reference):

"At the Proms, matters are further complicated. The promenaders, obviously, do not have seats, so now it is time for the flying rabbit. Fischer, we hear, will toss a toy bunny into the arena. The person who catches it will get to make a choice."

Obviously tossing a (non-killer) rabbit up to the Gallery isn't practical. Regarding the potential result, Fischer acknowledged:

"In a normal concert one expects perfection and one is interested in the interpretation. Here we will be happy if we manage to play a work through without major disaster and interpretation is out of the question. There will be a very welcome purity and simplicity in these readings."

So how did it go? (And what did the audience choose?) One review of the concert has already gone up, from Edward Seckerson of The Independent here:

'No preparation, no rehearsal, just a rather nervous librarian rushing backstage to dig out the parts. I reckon we gave them an easy ride with Kodaly and Bartok proudly keeping things in the family. And actually it wasn't the accomplishment of the play-throughs that impressed the most but rather the "group" turns they fielded while we waited for the music to arrive - not least four percussionists making something literal of body rhythm. My number didn't come up. I'd have had this great orchestra playing Elgar.'

From two bloggers, one left-of-center and right-of-center (no prizes for guessing which is which - hey, this is Daily Kos), both actually generally favorable:

L-o-c: Jessica Duchen, from her own blog (well, of course, after her Independent article on the event, you wouldn't expect her to trash the concert)

R-o-c: Igor Toronyi-Lalic, from The Arts Desk

For the record, this turned out to be the Prom 64 audience-chosen program:

Zoltán Kodály: Dances of Galanta
Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances
Josef Strauss: Sphärenklänge Waltz (Music of the Spheres)
Mikhail Glinka: Ruslan and Ludmila Overture
Igor Stravinsky: Tang
Hector Berlioz: "Hungarian March" from La damnation de Faust

But there actually was more, between each work. Since the orchestra's librarian (also a member of the orchestra, if you pay attention through the entire archived iPlayer audio - hint, hint) had to run backstage to get the scores for the musicians, something had to fill the time in between so as not to have dead air on the radio. This is where the music that was planned in advance came in. In those breaks between the pieces, musicians from the orchestra showed off their stuff in small groups, or even as individuals, as follows:

a. Telemann: string orchestra selection (sorry, no idea what it was)
b. Bartók: selections from 44 Duos for 2 Violins
c. Nino Rota: selection from Otto e mezzo (8 1/2), arranged for brass
d. Transylvanian folk music, for violin and "gourdon" (I'm not sure of the spelling, though)
e. The orchestra's tubist soloing on didgeridoo (that is not a misprint)

I have to say that after hearing it, factoring in all the logistics of audience members having to communicate their choices down to the podium and subjecting everything to essentially a voice vote, this experiment actually went down very well. While the choices were fairly safe, especially with 2 Hungarian selections to start things off (Fischer even joked about that at one point), the Josef Strauss and Stravinsky selections were a nice bit of a stretch from classical "top 40". Plus, basically sight-reading, even though the orchestra has obviously played all these pieces before, I heard only one obvious blooper (horn player, natch - sorry) in any of the pieces. I've heard the reviews about how great this orchestra is, but after this "stunt", I completely believe it. And I haven't even listened yet to the "proper" symphony concert that the BFO gave earlier in the evening. (Yes, folks, they played 2 concerts within about 5 hours of each other, the second with no preparation.)

Just to prove once and for all what a loser 3CM is, he listened to the iPlayer recording of the concert this afternoon, just barely in time to compile the lists and finish this diary, which again is of such utter triviality that disdain seems superfluous. But then, 3CM isn't so self-delusional as to think that anything he writes here will change the world for the better.

So what would have been your choice, had you been there and gotten a ballot? If you jump back to the pdf file of the ballot, this is where your "audience choice" comes in, where I humbly ask you to go through the list and give your top choice that you would have voted for, had you been one of the lucky ones in the RAH last night. Will be interesting to read, for those of you who actually bother to post a nomination in your comments (all 2.6 of you). With that, time for the usual SNLC protocol, namely your loser stories of the week...

(chingchonchinaman), Daily Kos (blog)
9 March 2011


Ever since its formation in 1983 the Budapest Festival Orchestra has worked overtime to establish its reputation as Hungary’s entry in the Euro-orchestra stakes, keeping up a stream of recordings, tours and a constant media presence. None of this would have paid off if the orchestra had not proved itself a world-class instrument. The focus of its concerts in London this year (two in June, two in November) is a cycle of the Beethoven piano concertos, but the orchestra’s playing has acquired such magnetism that it fairly upstaged the main event.
London, The Financial Times, June 10th, 2005, Richard Fairman

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