Why I Stood for Final Alice
So basically, I almost never give a standing ovation. It just doesn’t seem to mean that much anymore, and classical music audiences tend to give them out for merely competent performances. I’ve even been at concerts where the soloist, though famous, gave a truly sub-par performance only to have the audience leap to their feet.
Friday night’s performance of Final Alice by the PSO was frought with technical difficulties, especially in the case of Hila Plitmann’s headset mic, which seemed to have a loose connection somewhere that led to very loud pops at random intervals and to a lot flinching in the audience. Pittsburgh’s USDA Grade A classical music critics have already written about the tech issues here and here.
What I found particularly discouraging was not the tech problems, per se—tech fails, and usually at the worst possible time—but the length of time it took for the engineers to make a decision about how to address the situation. It was fully two thirds of the way through the piece before Plitmann was given a wireless handheld and the headset mic was turned off for good. During those two thirds of the piece I was stewing in my juices, thinking about how hard it is to get a good hearing of a contemporary work, and how any barrier makes that more difficult. So when Final Alice came to a close and the crowd leapt to its feat in a thunderous and sustained ovation, I got off my curmudgeonly butt too. And it wasn’t one of those stand-clap-clap now let’s run to the parking garage before everyone else ovations that I’ve seen plenty of times; this felt like the real thing.
I found myself wondering why, with with the actual experience of Del Tredici’s work having been so degraded, did the audience respond so enthusiastically? One clear reason has got to be Plitmann’s astonishing performance of such a demanding piece. I think there was a certain amount of rallying around her and the orchestra, who were in no way to blame for the difficulties. What also stood out to me, was that Del Tredici’s work really is one of the masterpieces of the 20th-century orchestral lit, and not even botched sound reinforcement could hide that. I left wanting to spend more time with a piece that has many riches to offer.
Being an audio engineer is tough work. Everyone has an opinion, and you only get noticed when something goes wrong. That said, at the highest professional level, you don’t expect to see the kinds of problems Heinz Hall experienced on Friday night, and if those problems occur, you expect them to get worked out more quickly. It would have been fine with me if Slatkin had stopped ten minutes into the work once it was apparent that the problem wasn’t going away. Maybe there is something in the contract that says he’s not allowed to, but that would have been preferable to having so much of what was very apparently a brilliant performance by both soloist and orchestra disfigured by sound reinforcement issues. In any case, it’s a testament to the depth of the music and the strength of the performances that the we were able to get a glimpse of how great a work Final Alice is, and I heard that Sunday’s performance was technically flawless. Good news to be sure.