Went for a classical music concert after ages. Attended the private cocktail party of the bank which sponsored the HK Philharmonic concert and wished I had got my jewellery out of storage. Unlike the hoi polloi in Hong Kong, where going to the opera, the ballet, the races or even a wedding is not an occasion to dress up and can be attended in your everyday jeans (which is both disappointing and refreshing, except in the case of weddings where it is just the former), the invitees of this event chose to don their jewels and serious makeup. I had on a decent dress, but junk earings, a large (albeit leather) bag that suggested I had to work for a living and had forgotten to paint my toenails. For once, I felt judged but the good breeding of the guests did not allow anyone to state it. They all stuck to their little cliques of privilege though unlike, again, at other quite – but not super – wealthy events inHong Kongwhere much more networking tends to go on (and can get quite tiring actually). Here you needed an introduction to join the chattering circles.

The concert was so good though. Well, it started with a piece by Debussy and I was all oh (not in a good way). It reminded me that I am so not at the vanguard when it comes to the arts. Like new media visuals arts kind of go above my head. I need a proper explanation to get the point of most video installations and even then, I am mostly, huh. But Debussy is hardly the vanguard seeing as he composed in the early 20th C. It’s surprising that most of us – I know this is not relevant to just me – still are more attuned to Beethoven or even Bach. I kind of felt only slightly less uncomfortable than people must have when they first attended a Stravinsky concert (by first I mean, when it was first performed not one’s personal first hearing) or viewed a Picasso painting (my own first reaction to Picasso was equally inept; I am deeply ashamed of trying to write an article for a newspaper on how lame the Picasso exhibition in Mumbai was) but while early 20th C people’s reactions are understandable given that the whole experience would have been provocative in its newness aren’t our (by which I mean 21st C) sensibilities supposed to be more attuned to this sort of thing?

Anyway, then came a completely stunning performance of a work by Saint-Saëns with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. You could just see how his general verve and exuberance inspired the orchestra to greatness. The highlight of the evening really.

There is this very odd tradition at Western classical concerts inHong Kongthough. Basically, after the soloist is done, or the concert is done, people will not stop clapping, thereby forcing the performer to come out for an encore. My feeling it that encores and standing ovations (thankfully this time did not involve the latter) should be reserved for extremely special performances and not EVERY performance. Now, one could argue that this particular performance was deserving of that level of applause. Certainly, it was very good. But the thing is I have noticed this happens at every performance inHong Kong. It just seems to have become either politeness (where if the audience demands an encore for one performance, it would be impolite not to demand one of others) or trying to get more music for one’s buck. I just find the whole thing kind of embarrassing because the performer will initially just come out a couple of times and take a bow and then the audience will keep clapping and finally he will, looking exhausted, finally play something. Concert-goers in other parts of the world, is this the norm everywhere? Please tell me it is not.

V pointed out that everyone knows this, including the performer, and I should not feel so bad for them. So, for example, he said at rock concerts everyone will start screaming “one more” and then the after much drama and the band saying “this is the final last one”, they will play yet another track. And basically everyone knows this is going to happen so they start announcing the last track a little in advance. But one can’t quite do that with a classical piece. And they did it at the end of the concert too, and the conductor kept coming out and bowing but basically did not oblige with an encore. What could the entire orchestra have performed anyway? Is there any piece short enough? The orchestra looked really tired and kind of fed up at the end of it, though they put on smiley faces. Again, do orchestras perform encores in other parts of the world? How often does this happen?

The last piece performed was Bolero by Ravel. I am clearly not a connoisseur but I felt the performance was strictly competent. Like they managed to get everything right but couldn’t go beyond flawless execution. A bit like practising scales, though obviously much harder. Also, weirdly the conductor choose to bring the percussionist in front when the entire tune is carried by the wind section, which was invisible in the back as usual, more so because the percussionist had extremely big hair. In the earlier piece I noticed the percussionist because although relegated to the back, but on a raised platform that made him visible, I began to wonder about why one would choose to specialise in percussion for an orchestra. Seemed like something of a sidekick role. So on one hand was happy the percussionist got his day, but felt like the wrong time for him to be foregrounded. Bolero does have a very insistent drumbeat running throughout and at the end, the conductor actually got the percussionist to come up front and take a bow, so maybe he was exceptional at his drumming, what do I know? I still think the piccolo girl and horn guy deserved a bigger clap though.

V has remarked that it’s completely unnecessary for the conductor to be there up front gesticulating wildly since everybody already knows what to do. I pointed out that he’s like the coach but V said that’s not the most apt comparison and it’s more like a film director standing in front and enthusing while the movie is going on. He has a point there. Anyway, our opinion is not going to change centuries of musical tradition and relegate conductors to a behind the scenes role. It’s interesting how most conductors I’ve seen are greatly flamboyant. I guess they need to be to inspire the orchestra otherwise they would be entirely pointless.

The whole dynamic of an orchestra is fascinating though. There is this series of rather racy books by Jilly Cooper which revolves around the orchestra and the offstage drama and intrigues, personalities etc. make for such entertainment. Surprised there hasn’t been any big film on it, in the same way as ballet has had its day.

There was one extremely beautiful young woman in the front row of the violinists, and after carefully perusing my programme and painstakingly comparing the photographs of each performer with the ones onstage (what? You can’t just sit and listen for two hours. Nobody does.) I determined that she was the assistant principal of the second violins. Initially, I wondered whether they had put her there because she was just so damn beautiful but I don’t think she would have got to that position just based on good looks alone (though they might have played a part). All the other principals were much older. How galling it must be for some of the older musicians to be upstaged by this pretty young thing. But damn, she was beautiful and I’m glad she was sitting up front.

Ok now I want to read that Jilly Cooper series again. And I have been listening to Bolero all weekend. I am sure much has been said about this really famous piece, and I am not going to read up on it before I write this (think it will be more fun to later to see if my interpretation gels with more authoritative ones). For me its appeal lies in the almost paintive, lyrical romantic notes from the wind section which come through over the ominous tapping of the drum in the background. Like some kind of plea for beauty against the march of uniformity.


What’s your favourite piece of music? And what’s the encore tradition at classical concerts you’ve attended?