Perils of Performance.
John Robert Brown

Conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic, in the closing bars of Dvorak's Sixth Symphony Samuel Wong made a vigorous gesture. His spectacles flew off and crashed onto the apron of the stage. As though nothing had happened he bowed to his Kowloon audience while concertmaster Dennis Kim Jin-soo discreetly retrieved the glasses under the cover of applause and acknowledgements. Undemonstratively, the violinist returned the specs to the maestro.

"Unfortunately, that's the sort of thing people will write about," a colleague said haughtily. I changed the subject.

It may sound perverse, but isn't such an incident the essence of performance? One enjoys a recording in the boring certainty that nothing will go wrong. By contrast, at a live performance, tension is present precisely because the faint chance exists that something will go awry. Don't misunderstand. I'm not seeking disasters. Just as one hopes that the tight rope walker will not fall, one wishes to hear a secure musical performance. The flirtation with danger creates interest.

In the Dvorak, the music was unsullied, yet the, er, spectacle caught everyone's attention. Similarly, there was a happy ending when Gina Bachauer embarked on Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Cleveland Orchestra. The platform sloped and, by mistake, the wheels of the Steinway were unlocked. During the opening bars, the piano rolled down the stage towards the principal cello. 'The cellist put both feet up to try and stop the encroaching piano, but to no avail,' writes Graham Wade in his biography of Bachauer. 'The piano kept coming until the third wheel slotted into an electrical socket in the floor, and ground to a halt.' Conductor George Szell remained unaware. Gina clutched the stool to her bottom and went in pursuit of the piano. She came in on time, didn't miss a note. 'Final tumultuous applause and immense good will all round,' reports Wade, reinforcing my point about creating tension and interest.

Mishaps such as broken strings can inspire good team work. To see string colleagues swiftly exchange instruments, then pass a devitalised fiddle back along the section, fit a new string and retune at speed is like watching a fire crew working. It doesn't harm the music and adds to the drama. Once I was in the audience at a jazz concert when guitarist Bill Bramwell (who played on the Candid Camera theme tune) broke a string. In the space of a thirty-two bar chorus taken by a colleague he re-strung, tuned and rejoined the performance. Whenever I witness interminable tuning by guitar tyros, I think of Bill Bramwell.

Entropy is everywhere. Strings break, pads fall out, springs snap, spikes slip, bridges collapse and drumheads split. But it's the totally unexpected that makes the headlines, stays in the memory, and for which there can be no preparation. John Anderson, during his time as percussionist in the orchestra of Opera North, was startled when a heavy spotlight crashed to the floor just a couple of feet from where he was sitting in the pit. It made a deep impression in several ways - not on John's head, fortunately.

The most glorious example of chaos occurred during a legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in 1991, celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of their first concert. It was, naturally, a stellar occasion. Daniel Barenboim conducted Wagner's Faust Overture. Sir George Solti conducted Beethoven's Fifth, and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto Number One with Barenboim as soloist. Rafael Kubelik ended the concert with Dvorak's Hussite Overture.

Prior to the concert the CSO held a dinner for four hundred special donors, who had paid $500 each. At such dinners a gift is given to those attending. On this occasion the gift was a specially inscribed alarm clock. Unfortunately, the clocks had been packed in their boxes with the alarm switches on. Both clocks and alarms were set to different times.

There were no problems during the Wagner. During the Beethoven an occasional beep was heard. After the interval more and more clocks came into the position where the set alarm time and the time on the clock matched. Throughout the first movement of the Tchaikovsky the beeping increased.

The cause was mystifying. Finally, one of the CSO staff asked, "Could it be those alarm clocks given out at dinner?" A swift experiment in the concert hall lobby confirmed that it was the same sound. There were four hundred clocks in the hall, ready to sound at any time during the rest of the concert. Barenboim and Solti were already infuriated by the beeping, assuming that phones were to blame. At the end of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, Solti started to address the audience. "I knew that he didn't know the real cause," said CSO executive Henry Fogel. "In addition, I knew that the people who had the clocks didn't know they had clocks. They had a wrapped present and most probably had not unwrapped it."

Fogel walked onstage, interrupting Solti's announcement to tell the audience that there were some four hundred randomly set alarm clocks. "When they stopped laughing, they dutifully took them outside to the ushers, who kept them in the lobbies until after the concert. The rest of the evening proceeded without incident."

Machinery can let you down, but animals can cause mayhem. Peter Ustinov reported taking his young daughter to see her first opera, a grand production of Aida, given in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. When several animals, including elephants, horses and camels, simultaneously relieved themselves, Ustinov's daughter asked quietly: "Daddy, is it all right if I laugh?"

Andrew Fletcher, horn player in the RPO, reported seeing a dog wander on stage during Beethoven's Symphony No.5 in China. Unfortunately he doesn't report what the dog did, nor the effect this had on the orchestra's performance.

That, too, is the sort of thing that people write about. Can you blame them?

First published in Classical Music magazine, 15th January 2005, as 'Oh Whoops'. Used by kind permission. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Cartoon by Harry Venning used by kind permission of the artist. Reproduction is forbidden.

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