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Bravo! Bis!! Encore!!!

To the Editor:

I am an avid concert goer. My wife and I enjoy concert music in all its forms — recital and chamber, vocal and choral, orchestral and operatic — and while we have our special favorite composers, there is no stylistic period that we favor to the exclusion of others.

Since we live in a great metropolitan area, there is no paucity of choice. Rather the opposite: the embarrassment of musical riches sometimes makes it difficult to decide which concert to attend on any given day. What then attracts us to select one event and pass on the others?

One answer must be the performing artist or ensemble about whom we are curious or who has already earned our admiration and enthusiasm. Judging by the reaction of those around us in the audience, that's how a great many people spend their money and make their choice. We sit in rapt silence, absorbing the interpretations of Soloist X or Orchestra Y (under the direction of Maestro Z) with an intensity almost equal to that of the performers on stage, only to explode at work's end with our audible approval. "Bravo!" we shout and, where the hall permits, "Bis!!" and "Encore!!!" The thunderous applause sounds like a stereophonically percussive finale. As we file out of the hall, we feel nourished, as if our very souls had been enriched and ennobled. We make a mental note: let's be sure to hear these artists again at their next appearance.

We are also enticed sometimes by particular works. We choose to see Figaro or Falstaff not so much owing to the production as to the work itself (although the variations from production to production are fascinating); the same applies, I think, to unstaged works such as complete offerings of the Beethoven or Bartok string quartets or a Schubert song cycle.

Dropping slowly off to sleep the other day, I sensed that there was a missing dimension to this explanation of my musical habits. I would have forgotten all about it had I not awakened the following morning with a continuation of these musings. Wasn't my curiosity about a brand new piece yet another potent magnet that draws me to a musical event? Wasn't I enchanted with being among the very first listeners to experience the sound of a score whose ink was still wet? I certainly don't think it necessary to wax rhapsodic about every new work or even most or many. But when was the last time I chose to go to a concert simply because it included a new piece by a composer whose music I love, whose prior works made my heart go pitter-patter and my spirits rise?

Perhaps these thoughts were motivated by an engrossing book I came across the other day, First Nights by Thomas Forrest Kelly [Yale University Press, 2000], a thoroughly researched account of the first performances of five famous pieces: Monteverdi's Orfeo [1607], Handel's Messiah [1742], Beethoven's Ninth Symphony [1824], Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique [1830], and Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps [1913]. The author puts each of these masterworks into a comprehensive perspective, historical, sociological, and artistic, and then presents all known documents, including related correspondence and reviews. When the reader is done, he has an elevated sense of how a specific work represents its composer, how the piece came to be written, how that creative artist was affected by his society, and how that society and ultimately the whole world was affected by the composer.

One of the things I noted from Mr. Kelly's compendium is the absence of unanimity in audience reaction even to works we now consider unquestioned masterpieces. Some folks hated them, some just didn't get them, some thought they were "interesting." But there was always a cadre of wild enthusiasts — and not solely among the "literati" either — who were ready to go to the barricades to champion their new-found passion. And history has shown, time and again, that today's smash hit doesn't necessarily guarantee admission to posterity. It is only the work that has withstood the test of time, that people throughout the generations have chosen to use, to hear, to read, to behold, that truly qualifies it as evergreen.

First Night made me contemplate how many subsequent nights featured performances of these five works in every corner of the world. My wonder that it is almost 400 years since the launching of Orfeo is surpassed only by my amazement that it will soon be 100 years since Le sacre du printemps first saw the light of day. How strange, I thought, that the new pieces I have heard over the last 50 years are performed with lesser frequency and in fewer venues than the compositions of yesteryear, and this despite the availability of mass media barely dreamt of when people first flocked to hear the latest contribution of contemporary composers, "their" contemporary composers.

I look back on the great performers I have heard over the years and try to compare them to the performers I am hearing now. They are all wonderful. But performances come and go, while the works performed are, at least potentially, forever. How I crave the musical work that will instill in me the emotion and devotion that inspired those first listeners to Monteverdi, Handel, Beethoven, Berlioz, and Stravinsky, which will compel me to cheer its composer and shout Bravo! Bis!! Encore!!!


Almos T. Werner
New York

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