When a Critic Hosts the Premiere
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February 14, 2020
“Please silence your cellphones.”
There are few phrases I hear more often in my life as a music critic. But it was strange — like a child playing dress-up — to speak the sentence myself, and in the incongruous setting of my own living room on a rainy evening earlier this week.
A few months ago, I got an email from the publicist for Michael Gordon, one of the Bang on a Can trio of composers who, since the 1980s, have infused into classical styles a wry and rebellious rock sensibility.
She said that Mr. Gordon, celebrated for his stylishly aggressive treatment of acoustic instruments, had written a piece called “House Music,” an hourlong solo cello work with a single requirement: It had to be played in a domestic space, not a concert hall. Did I want to present the New York premiere at my apartment in Brooklyn?
I’ll admit it was an appealing prospect. For someone who’s never grown quite used to my late-night subway journey home after an opera, it was hard to turn down a performance that would take place a few steps from bed.
So 20 friends showed up on Monday just before 8 p.m., drank a little wine, and gathered close around Ashley Bathgate, a cellist closely associated with the Bang on a Can circle. The music was less than two years old, but the spirit was retro. Before the rise of the urban bourgeoisie and then recordings, and the concomitant decline of amateur performance, this was how music lived: in homes, in front of small groups. No stage, no dimmed lights, nowhere to hide for anyone.
The practice hasn’t died out completely. The company Groupmuse has made a specialty of providing small ensembles that arrive at your place to play Mozart or Brahms. And people who fund artists often host them, too: I once heard a quartet by Andrew Norman in the Dumbo loft of new-music patrons.
But “House Music,” conceived for this and only this situation, particularly calls into question the conventions of place and etiquette that classical music largely takes for granted. For me, who hadn’t played impresario since putting on nursery-school puppet shows for my parents, it brought up the logistical, ethical, even emotional demands that arise from presenting while writing. (Throwing a party always provokes anxiety, doesn’t it?)
Like any journalist, but even more so, critics balance learning about their subjects with remaining well apart from them. It’s a profession that thrives on a kind of passionate distance. It can be hard enough to feel comfortable reviewing an artist after an interview on neutral ground. So to let one into my home?
And would I, someone asked a few days before the big night, pay Ms. Bathgate? I was embarrassed that the question hadn’t even occurred to me. With complimentary press tickets a given, a critic’s existence is almost entirely free of financial transactions. The performer and I both just show up; this magical ease elides the reality that each of our activities translates to real currency for the other.
Ms. Bathgate is a freelancer; for years, I was one, too, making decisions about gigs based on a rough calculus of money, exposure and artistic fulfillment. She — and Mr. Gordon, with whom she’s agreed to split fees for “House Music” — would likely ask thousands of dollars from a random person interested in hosting. But she said that on this occasion she’d be willing to perform the piece, which she was eager to play and eager for people to learn about, without charge.
After consulting my editors, I offered an honorarium of a few hundred dollars, less than her time and talent deserved, but symbolic of what “House Music” came to mean for me: a reminder of dynamics in my job that I’m often able and willing to forget.
This went for the experience of listening, too. Concert-going is usually the easy comfort of disappearing into the dark. At Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, critics are just like everyone else in the audience: empowered by anonymity, as harsh light shines on the vulnerable artist. Not so much in my living room. I had planned to place Ms. Bathgate in a spot that would spread my friends throughout my apartment, letting restless people wander a little. But she gently corrected me; she wanted to have everyone almost literally within reach.
Of course, she was right. My arrangement, I realized, had aimed to spare myself and the rest of my little audience the full exposure demanded by “House Music.” It’s not always pleasant. Accounts of Groupmuse events that I’ve read tend to focus on how much more comfortable they are than traditional concerts. But I was surprised to feel so awkward sitting on my own couch: the setting familiar, yet not for this purpose, and the behavior imported from another context. (It was still a tiny cataclysm when someone dropped a cup during a soft passage.)
To be two or three feet from the performer, the listeners in full view of one another, makes far more explicit than usual what is tacit in a concert hall: The audience is performing, too, both accepting and feeding energy, watched as it watches.
The unshakable sense that I owned this performance — the way people own paintings and hang them in their homes — prevented me from reviewing it, in my usual sense. It had become part of my furniture; it was, I couldn’t help but feel, mine. But I can describe it, and its effect on me. “House Music” is divided into eight sections, and Ms. Bathgate wisely spoke briefly before each. (Given the intensity of the surroundings, a collection of separate pieces felt very different than an unbroken 60-minute span would have.)
In true Gordon style, the music tends violently percussive and extreme, relentless in its industrial repetitions, but with stark exceptions: a section of glassy harmonics, another of keening, drooping melancholy gestures. By the end, Ms. Bathgate was practically sawing at a string while twisting the cello’s peg and painfully contorting its pitch, the classical equivalent of smashing a guitar against the stage.
Yet I was most shocked, almost to tears, by the far more restrained fourth piece. Ms. Bathgate, playing soft double stops, suddenly began to quietly sing the doleful words of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” in an ethereal voice, unhurriedly rising to a intimately piercing wail.
While I’m often delighted during performances, and I don’t infrequently get goose bumps and shivers, true musical surprises are few and far between. Would this song have had the same impact had I been sitting 50 feet away, with a few hundred strangers? Not a chance.