Sunday, January 20, 2008

Deep listening

I spent six days in New York this month, visiting with artist managers, meeting musicians and attending performances. A highlight of my trip was hearing Wagner's Die Walkuere at the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel.

Since Maazel has been long absent from the Met podium, his return was newsworthy, and I was eager to attend. I greatly admire his technique -- there are few conductors I know who can communicate to an orchestra with such masterful economy of gesture -- and I had a third-row orchestra seat, with Maazel just to my left, from which to observe him readily.

I'm in awe of Wagner's Die Walkuere, and the cast was strong. Vocally resplendent mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was most impressive -- a commanding Flicka whose admonitions any Wotan would be compelled to obey!

But what astounded me most was the playing of the Met Orchestra. With Maazel in control at their helm, quiet and attentive audience members around me, the singers so close in front of me, enough room so that I didn't feel cramped, and (critically) with enough energy and presence of mind to give myself fully to the performance, I had what I call a "deep listening" experience. I felt fully engrossed in the performance, and intimately connected to Wagner. Extraneous thoughts rarely entered my consciousness. I was totally "in the moment."

Performances that inspire experiences of this nature are incredibly moving, and the source of tremendous joy in my life.

They're not everyday occurrences. At any performance, there are threats to full attention that deep listening requires. Some are environmental and external -- what's happening around the listener; some are personal and internal -- distraction, fatigue, an unreadiness to engage with the performance.

In the course of the Met performance, a cell phone went off -- the unmistakably cheerful opening of "Spring" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons in chirpy electronic tones -- and it didn't come from the audience, it came from the pit! Maestro Maazel had a very special glance to offer one of the sections of the orchestra at that moment... Thankfully, it didn't ruin a rapturous moment.

Deep listening does ask us to give ourselves entirely to what's happening on stage. Unlike the superabundance of entertainment options available to us these days, live performance of great music wants our undivided attention in order for the music to work its magic. This isn't always easy, but when it happens, it's memorable and wonderfully rewarding.

When creating each new concert season, I aspire to these moments that deep listening brings: when everything comes together to enable the artists on stage to connect through great music to the people in the audience. This Met Walkuere was a powerful reminder to me of how exhilarating such listening can be.

At Spivey Hall, we're privileged to enjoy performances by excellent international musicians who are inspired by the hall's superb acoustics and the connection they feel with the audience. As a result, we probably get more than our average share of deep listening opportunities. I certainly feel that way, and suspect it's one of the reasons our most loyal patrons feel so passionately what happens here.

As the second half of the 2007/08 season begins in earnest, even though we'll never have the Met Orchestra in the pit and eight mighty Valkyries singing lustily from the Spivey Hall stage, I'm confident we can look forward to plenty of deep listening experiences and all the pleasures they afford.


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