Friday, April 17, 2009

Standing O's

Recently, Terry Teachout did a blog post at the WSJ about an incident at the Metropolitan Opera. A production of La Sonnambula was roundly booed by the audience. As Teachout points out, not only is it unusual to get booed, it is unusual not to get a standing ovation. He says:

Most of the theatrical performances I see in New York receive standing ovations. Time was when audiences reserved that special gesture for a performance of equally special merit, but in recent years it has become a near-reflexive response to anything short of a crash-and-burn disaster.
He then meditates on the art of booing and why it doesn’t happen much anymore.

This post was picked up at the Freakonomics Blog and then by other bloggers, all of whom are wondering why standing ovations are the rule and not the exception.  Ezra Klein has a theory that it has to do with the herd mentality:

People fear being wrong. The standing ovation isn't necessarily a sign of enjoyment. You might stand and clap for an utterly unpleasant play about the Holocaust. It's a sign of critical appreciation. And people don't want to be wrong about whether a play deserves an ovation. They don't want to be the boor who missed the cutting edge theory behind the endless monologues. Disliking a beautiful performance can be seen as a sign of poor taste or deficient critical faculties. As such it takes time to decide whether or not jeering is a safe response to a poor performance. Time you don't have because the audience has already taken a different path.

Audience behavior, after all, is a herd phenomenon. Standing ovations are occasionally instantaneous. But they're more often infections. Some stand, and then some others stand, and then the laggards decide that remaining seated seems churlish, and they can't see anything anyway. So they stand too. Just about no one boos while everyone else stands and cheers.

I pretty much agree with all of that.  But it got me thinking about the rare instantaneous standing ovations I've experienced.

My most vivid memory of a spontaneous ovation was a long time ago (at least 15 years ago, maybe more) at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.  The program included a Mozart Piano Concerto and the guest pianist was Awadagin Pratt.  I had never heard of Pratt and I don't recall which Piano Concerto it was.  I like Mozart but much of his work runs together in my mind.

Pratt was a surprise from the first moment he walked out onto the stage. First of all, he was huge. Not fat, but big. Very tall with broad shoulders and what appeared to be huge hands (which led me to wonder why he wasn’t performing one of the works that require huge hands, Rachmaninoff for instance. But I digress.)

It was also a surprise to me that he was African American.   There just aren't many African American concert pianists, or if there are they don't visit the Saint Louis Symphony.   I remember he was dressed somewhat casually (it was a day concert as I recall) although not inappropriately.  The idea that he was casual probably was exacerbated by his dreadlocks.

But the strangest thing about him was that he did not sit on a standard piano bench but sat, instead, on a small wooden four legged stool that put him very low to the ground. When he sat down he reminded me for all the world of Schroeder in the Charlie Brown Comic strip. I remember thinking that this might be one of the extraordinary Mozart experiences I'd ever had.  

And it was.  But not because of his appearance.  Because of his playing.

It was magical. His technique was beautiful, precise and light and the sound rang through the hall, the orchestra melding into the piano solos as if soloist and orchestra were one organism. There was utter silence in the hall between the movements. Not the usual silence punctuated by coughs and shuffling, but an expectant silence. It was like being at the ballpark when a pitcher has a no hitter going and the audience is holding its breath. The moment he finished the entire audience was on its feet applauding and shouting bravo.

It was the kind of performance where total strangers turned to each other during intermission and talked about it.  It brought the crowd together.   It was a once in a lifetime experience. 

Pratt has returned and I've heard him since.  He's a fine musician and I've always enjoyed him.  But he's never had, or deserved, another spontaneous ovation.   That was a special moment and he completely deserved his Standing O.