This weekend was our literary festival and all the book nerds were in town, I love that book-nerd energy. I mostly didn’t partake – for as much time as I spend with my nose in a book, I am (weirdly?) indifferent to the notion of listening to authors read from or talk about their work. I did my part, such as it was, by helping the local library friends set up their author-adjacent event.
Instead of the lit fest, on Sunday afternoon I went to a concert at St. Francis Cathedral, our big downtown cathedral right off the Plaza. One of the works they were performing was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which I’m very fond of and had never heard live. I’m in no way musical and I play no musical instruments except for piano, badly, as a child, and I view the ability to play any instrument with skill as some kind of sorcery. I am equal parts awe and envy, out there in the audience.
The Lark Ascending, seen in person, was glorious in ways I didn’t anticipate. There is of course something magical about music seen and heard right in front of you. But these weren’t major-investment seats at the Opera House – there were people there just … peopling, you know? Some fussy kids, the dude who kept fiddling with his trucker hat, folks who were there because that’s their regular church or they knew someone in the orchestra. The Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra is good, by small-town standards, but you wouldn’t mistake them for the London Symphony Orchestra recorded live and then worked over with some audio magic for Deutsche Grammophon.
The result was less sublime perfection (which I can get in abundance on YouTube music) and a more human experience, the way that I imagine most music has been experienced for as long as people have been creating it. Yes, it’s true, if I’ve paid for a premium seat at the Kennedy Center Opera House I don’t want someone behind me spending five minutes making crinkly noises unwrapping a cough drop. I was once sat three rows behind a woman and her glowing phone screen, and I wanted nothing more in that moment than for a ninja to creep up and garrote her. (I settled for an usher.)
But Sunday afternoon in the cathedral? People fiddling with their programs and their reading glasses and wiggling in the pews just doesn’t bother me. Also, because I’m looking at the musicians and they’re not World Class Musicians, it allowed me to see and pick apart the sounds and how they’re made. In recordings, I can’t separate out what individual instruments are coming together to create what sweeping melodies and soaring musical bits in The Lark Ascending, just that I found it profoundly moving. Seeing the magic happen right in front of me, the pieces of it, was really fun and interesting.
Don’t hold me to it, but I think I’ve gotten more tolerant of the people around me, post-lockdown. I’m happy as hell to be in an audience of hundreds of people, listening to a concert, even if some of them forget to turn their mobile phones off or bring kids who aren’t prepared to sit through an hour of Culture in absolute silence.
Are you resuming any of those kinds of activities? (I did wear a mask to the concert since the place was packed, that’s where my bar is set now which I think has some basis in reality – the amount of viral load you’re exposed to in one setting.) Do you like author readings? Would you rather go to the dentist than to a small-town music concert? Are your audience expectations different depending on how much you paid to be there?