February 22nd, 2010

master's voice

An aging indie rocker goes to the Sondheim symphony

So with my pending unemployment, I've started trolling freecycle and the free section of craigslist for materials to do some home improvement projects with my sudden free time. Along the way, I scored a free ticket to the seattle symphony's "Pops" concert of Marvin Hamlisch conducting a medley of Stephen Sondheim songs. Call it the show tunes equivalent of the Grateful Dead "miracle ticket". I love Sondheim, my husband could not care less for him, thus, having one ticket and going alone was not an issue. It was the final performance; a 2pm Sunday matinee.

I had not been to the symphony since I was a child, and I only vaguely remember being exposed to kid-friendly matinees of accessible Classical pieces. Given that I seldom go to rock shows anymore because standing in one place for 2-3 hours is increasingly hard on my feet, I was thrilled to hear music in a venue where sitting was expected. The face value of the ticket was $17, which seemed like a great deal for a 2 hour concert where you are guaranteed a seat.

I was not the youngest person over voting age there, though it was close; though I'm now in the married homeowner demographic, I am still not yet 40, and yet the audience was overwhelmingly AARP eligible. Perhaps that's a function of it being a matinee show, or perhaps Capital C Culture is still mostly for the older generation. After the opening number of the overture/medley of "A funny thing happened on the way to the forum", Marvin Hamlisch basically did a shout-out to the children in the first few rows that he could see. He made light of the idea that some of them might have been dragged there by their parents, but at least one kid (male, around 11) stated that his ticket to the show was a Valentine's day present from his mom, who was also in attendance but seated in a different row because she couldn't get two seats together. Tellingly, her son did not want to leave his seat in the front row to move 10 rows back to sit in an unclaimed seat near mom. Assuming this Valentine's present was the kid's idea, I think in a decade he'll be a carbon copy of Kurt from "Glee" if he's already caught the Sondheim bug at age 11.

Seeing a "Pops" symphony performance is a lot less formal than going to the "real" symphony. There's still some of the symphony traditions that are either august or pompous (depending on your degree of culture and or cynicism), such as all the musicians wear tuxes or black formal wear (for the ladies), and the first violinist comes on the stage right before the conductor to applause, then plays the note that everyone tunes their instruments to. Probably unlike the "real" symphony, the conductor did a small amount of banter (ie chatting with the kids in audience) and introduced some of the selections with anecdotes or contextual information. Before "Send in the Clowns", Sondheim's best known song, Hamlisch related Frank Sinatra's assessment of the lyrics as being about "When you love some dame and she throws you overboard". Other anecdotes included which songs were from famous Sondheim flops (Anyone Can Whistle) or Sondheim's penchant for not having all the songs written by the time casting starts (Follies).

As for the selections, there was a pleasant mix of the expected ("Send in the Clowns", "Being Alive" from "Company", the Sweeney Todd Overture) to the relatively obscure (two selections from 1981's "Merrily we roll along", another flop that I'm aware of but have never actually heard any songs from before today). The oddest omission was that there was nothing from "Into the Woods" , his other big 1980's success (besides "Sunday in the Park with George", from which there were two songs, including the closing number "Move On"). I can't say I was surprised that my favorite Sondheim musical, "Assassins", was not represented; it's eleven years newer than "Sweeney Todd" but just as dark. Time (and being a work of fiction) may have softened the impact of "Sweeney Todd", whereas "Assassins" imagines a duet between John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme, both of whom are still living.

Already being a fan of Sondheim, I enjoyed the concert immensely; I'm not sure what someone unfamiliar with the material would have made of the revue/pastische approach to sondheim's oeuvre. The man in the seat next to me was slightly sobbing after Carol Swarbrick's performance of "Send in the Clowns", and given the masterful way she portrayed the regret inherent in the song's lyrics, I see why it could move someone to tears. I also enjoyed the experience of seeing a performance of music I knew I'd like in a more comfortable setting than the rock shows of my younger days. I can't help but think that I'd go see more $15 shows at rock clubs if I knew I'd have a seat, clear sight lines, free coat check, and fellow audience members actually watching the show instead of chatting with each other or on their phones. Maybe that last part makes me sound too " hey you kids, get off my lawn", but it was such an unexpected wonder to experience the simple pleasure of knowing that everyone in the audience was paying rapt attention to the show they were ostensibly there to see.

There's a Pops concert of The Music Man in a few months; I think I'll attend. It may be a while before the Symphony can lure me to Berlioz, but you never know.