I turn around from my second row seat in Albuquerque’s Popejoy Hall and see the capacity crowd is standing and clapping. On the stage, the New Mexico Philharmonic conductor bows and the orchestra members stand, but it’s the absent composer I’m madly applauding. It’s too bad he isn’t here tonight to receive the flower bouquet laid at the conductor’s feet because Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, the “Pathetique,” is a masterwork.
I’m aghast how this symphony – considered a masterpiece now – was panned by critics and audiences the first time it was performed in 1893. Many great works have been panned after their first public performance, and still are. Classical music has always been owned, at least most appreciated and patronized, by older, wealthier people. I assume it was this base that panned Tchaikovsky’s sixth because, to generalize, older, wealthy people tend to be on the conservative side. Among many changes they didn’t like, perhaps the hardest was listening to the long, somber ending. What, no rousing conclusion to the fourth movement? Anything that feels too “new” or isn’t as great as the composer’s most previous work the musical establishment often scorns.
Caught up in my fervent clapping, as if hoping Tchaikovsky might hear me, I cannot believe anyone ever slammed his sixth. I don’t care what they were expecting. Beauty is beauty, isn’t it? To not be moved, I repeat – moved – by this music, seems then to have fallen upon deaf ears.
While exiting the hall, I hear negative audience response to “Circuits,” a modern piece that opened the program. Again – too new, too different, too soon for most folk? I, too, cannot see classical music evolving to the sound of “Circuits,” a rather edgy 1990 orchestral piece that places an emphasis on experimentation over “beauty.” Then again, beauty is in the ear of the listener. And wasn’t Tchaikovsky experimenting in “Pathetique,” too, a large reason audiences had difficulty with it, especially it’s “downer” ending?
When I hear raves for the night’s highlighted piece, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in b minor, played masterfully by Zuill Bailey, I mull the fact that as classical music has changed, audiences have not. Classical music audiences tend not only to love concertos that display musician’s virtuosic abilities (and always have), but the majority of audiences are composed of the sixty and over set. My earliest concert memories attending Kennedy Center programs during the nineties were smothered by a preponderance of aging audience member’s tepid response and involvement to the events generally, complete with coughs and snores heard aplenty during them. However, in comparison, New Mexico Philharmonic patrons seem livelier and engaged, but are nevertheless overwhelmingly seniors (despite the availability of great seats for students at a huge discount). This audience loved the violin concerto and Tchaikovsky; not so much “that opening thing they played.” Sometimes when I hear responses like that, it comes across as though the people have been spoon fed what to like.
Tonight, I was caught up in all the glorious trappings that come with classical music events. I admit to my own brand of symphony snobbery by only buying seats located close to the stage. It is there I feel comfortable and most a part of the music. I can see the performers’ physical efforts of perfection, often their sweat; I bask in being surrounding by a world of concert hall browns, dotted by beautiful blacks and whites from the musician’s strict dress code, however upstaged by flower arrangement decor. While music is playing, I have difficulty sitting still like a good classical concert go-er should. And after the music is over, I clap for somebody who’s not even in the room.
I guess I strike a bit of discord with the base of classical music patrons around me, but I’m the happiest one in the hall.
The New Mexico Philharmonic performed this program October 24, 2015.
Artwork and photos by Mike Andberg.