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baroque-bach mountain

November 03, 2008

My apologies for the title of this blog. It has nothing to do with anything, and it would be much more topical (although no more appropriate) if it was still 2005. But the joke practically wrote itself; who I am to get in the way of humor? To be truthful, I’m just struggling to find an entry point, because I just got home from LACO’s performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and, well, it wasn’t my cup of tea. My friend Jen loved it, though, and thought it was peaceful and soothing, and it reminded her of Jane Austen movies, and she was waiting for Colin Firth to show up.

I had a hunch I wasn’t a fan of Baroque music, and this evening confirmed it. Not because of the concert itself, or the musicians, because the musicians sounded fantastic, and the music seemed challenging. It’s just that I don’t care for it, and find it forgetable. I wasn’t bored, just never got wrapped up in it. And because I never got wrapped up in it, my mind wandered a lot. I’m sure this has happened, every once and a while, to everyone (if it hasn’t happened to you, speak up in the comments section!). I used to feel bad when I would doze off at an opera, until I heard a NPR story about how lots of people, including critics, aficionados, and singers, have admitted to falling asleep during performances. So I’m rather confident that I’m not alone when my focus wanders from the stage.

One thing that kept my attention were the spike marks onstage. For those of you unfamiliar, spikes are made from colored, easily-removable pieces of tape, and mark where things should be placed. I did some stage managing for plays in college, and we spiked things all the time, so during quick scenery changes, we knew exactly where a piece of furniture goes, so it’s in the same spot every performance. It didn’t occur to me that an orchestra would spike things, but, apparently they do. They spike a lot. And since I was sitting in the balcony and had brought my binoculars, I could see them all. The first thing I noticed was that the harpsichord was spiked. That struck me as odd, because LACO will only perform this concert once at Royce Hall, and I assumed that once you put the harpsichord where it goes, it would stay there, eliminating the need for spikes. Wrong. There were 6 concertos, and the harpsichord was moved into a different position for each one. Twice it was rotated, but other times, it was moved a matter of inches. Twice it wasn’t even on the spikes at all. You’re probably bored by this paragraph, but this is the stuff that fascinates a theater nerd like me.

When I wasn’t looking at the spikes, my eyes were wandering around the room. The ceiling of Royce Hall has a stunning grid of ornately-painted insets, each with identical moldings and patterns. Ever wonder how many there are? 63. I counted. Twice. I tried to figure out how Teresa Stanislav’s (who plays violin) dress was constructed – the bottom of it flared out in such a way that I couldn’t tell if the fabric was folded or made of strips sewn together. For those of you who watched “Project Runway” this season, it looked like a dress Leanne might have made.

Despite it not being my favorite concert, it still served as educational for me. The program notes mentioned that Bach wrote these concertos for the Margrave of Brandenburg. Anyone know what a Margrave is? I didn’t. Turns out it’s a German rank for men that lorded over border and frontier provinces. Another thing I figured out is slightly embarassing: turns out what I thought was an oboe is actually a bassoon. Minus 10 points for the LACO Newbie.

In addition, I have questions. David Washburn played the trumpet in the concert, but it didn’t look like a trumpet to me, because it didn’t have any bends in the brass. What kind of trumpet was it? Are there many types of trumpets? And I was curious (and impressed) that Margaret Batjer led the orchestra while playing violin, and there was no conducter. Does Margaret use visual clues that the other musicians pick up on? Or they just stay together because they’re that good?

Before I wrap this up, I want to thank Bob Bragonier for answering my questions in my last blog (and Lacey for clarifying a point). I also appreciated the nice things Bob had to say about my writing (and learned what ‘erudite’ meant in the process) and was flattered when he quoted me in one of his blogs in the same sentence as the LA Times critic. I’ll still have questions, Bob, and I hope you’ll consider providing erudite answers. I’m not sure I even used that word properly.

I just reread what I’ve written so far, and I hope my discussion of my wandering mind isn’t interpreted as disrespectful or unappreciative of LACO, the musicians, or the music being performed. Rather, I strived to be honest in my perspective of the evening, and, in doing so, hope to be relatable. Lastly, I teased in my previous blog that I’d be writing about working out, and I will. Next time.


Haha! I read the whole blog, and had to go back to be beginning before I got the joke of the title - I am so slow sometimes...

  • —Anonymous, November 03, 2008 09:19 am

On the Brandenburg concert at Royce:
1) Isn't there some way to amplify the harpsichord? In Bach's day it would have been played in a room. Played in an auditorium it can't be heard except in solo passages. We missed a lot of Bach's wonderful score.
2)The concertos were beautifully performed, but six at a time, with all their repeats, is a lot.

  • —Grover Heyler, November 03, 2008 05:36 pm

The trumpet David Washburn played was a piccolo trumpet. They are usually pitched in Bb or A (an octave higher than a standard Bb trumpet) and they make it much easier to play light and thin in the upper register. Not all piccolo trumpets are as straight as Mr. Washburn's. His looks much cooler than most piccolo trumpets though. Although my favorite aspect of David Washburn playing Brandenburg 2 (aside from the sheer virtuosity he displays) is how red his face gets when he plays high. The piccolo trumpet is a tough instrument to play, I would liken the sensation to passing a watermelon through a grape :) But boy does Mr. Washburn play it well.

  • —Dan Stott, November 03, 2008 09:09 pm

You won't normally see that much spike tape at a LACO concert, but as you discovered, playing all six Brandenburgs in one evening demands virtuosity from everyone, including our stagehands. They have all their "moves" mapped out beforehand because there is literally no time to figure it out on the go: in terms of "minutes of music," the six Brandenburg concertos clock in at exactly two hours. With a twenty minute intermission during the performance, that leaves ten minutes for transitions between the pieces before we go into overtime. Our stagehands did a remarkable job both nights making all the transitions as smooth as possible, and even with an encore on Saturday night we were off stage within the magic two and a half hour window. On Sunday, we went over by just a couple of minutes! The stagehands joked backstage during rehearsal about the concert being a "ballet for stage crew." Great job, Bob, Jimmy, and Ed!

  • —Devin Thomas, November 04, 2008 10:54 am

Dear Grover,
I wanted to respond to your comment about the harpsichord at Royce Hall. LACO did amplify the harpsichord for Brandenburg No. 5 to help bring out Bach's nuances that you spoke of. It was a very delicate situation however to amplify the instrument subtly enough to have it imperceptible to the audience. If we had the volume too high the instrument's sound would become electronic so there was a limit to what we could do. We only amplified No. 5 because of the volume issues, to effectively do this for each one it would have required the volume to be constantly changed.

  • —Amy Bassett, November 04, 2008 11:32 am

Hi David,
I'm glad you felt comfortable enough to say that Baroque music isn't your cup of tea. I think people are often too shy about expressing their likes and dislikes when it comes to classical music. I happen to love the Brandenburg concertos, but I've definitely been to other concerts where I found myself counting the ceiling tiles or focusing on something other than the music because my mind started wandering.

  • —anonymous, November 04, 2008 11:33 am

wow. i can't believe what i just read.

the concert on saturday at the alex was absolutely unbelievable, and this guy is talking about tape on the floor!

to be able to hear LIVE all six concertos during one evening with accomplished musicians that make up laco is an experience that not many people are lucky enough to have in their lifetime.

i am very fortunate to have that experience twice now.

i want to thank the laco for a fantastic performance.

and whoever had the brilliant idea of having the musicians stand (when able) was a fantastic. it added so much to the performance, lifting the music and the musicians. it also offered a visual glimpse into the joyful play between musicians that bach may have intended.

for years i've listened to my cds of the concertos, and to be able to hear it live, with such emotion, with such passion, with such ability was a great gift. i feel so privileged to have been present.

thank you laco!!

  • —Anonymous, November 04, 2008 04:32 pm

I thought the entire concert was brilliante! The strings were fabulous and the conducting by the concertmistress while paying was extremely effective! I enjoyed the "athleticism" of the violinists and they're spotless accuracy! The ornamentatin was exquisite as well. I felt like I was dining at the finist of resteraunts during the concerti with the culmination being the 5 star dessert served up by virtuoso trumpeter David Washburn! It was a fabulous way to end the concert. The final movement of #2 was so exciting and well played and then when played again as the encore..it was mind blowing! (literally and figuratively!)Mr. Washburn is par excellance and delivered a polished, exciting, virtuostic performance. Congratulations LACO on a masterful performance!

  • —Anonymous, November 04, 2008 06:57 pm

I was recently in a high school choir that sang a Brandenburg concerto, and although I love the music I found myself bored in the middle of the piece only because I knew the piece so well that it had sort of run itself dry.

  • —Griffin G., November 09, 2008 10:52 pm

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