Last December I attended a Sunday afternoon People’s Symphony Concert at Town Hall, the first of the 2010-11 season. I’ll have more to say about the idiosyncratic culture of this concert series in the future, and will take the opportunity now and again to review exceptional performances. In this post, however, I wanted to place the focus elsewhere.

The afternoon’s entertainment was a duo, cello and piano, playing a mix of Romantic and contemporary music: Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Gulda, Schnittke. According to the program notes, the cellist, one Friedrich Kleinhapl, has performed with several major European orchestras and around the world as a soloist, and has recorded 11 CDs.

What the program notes did not mention (and of course there is no reason why they should have) was that Mr Kleinhapl is almost certainly less than five feet tall, while his accompanist, a Mr Andreas Woyke, is seven feet if he is an inch.

As a result, Mr Kleinhapl was barely visible over the shoulder of his cello, and his left hand seemed phantasmagorically disembodied as it scurried around the fingerboard. Mr Woyke’s piano bench stood well back on a six-inch riser, probably so that his knees would not be cramped under the keyboard, and he could use the pedals comfortably.*

It did not help matters—or, depending on your perspective, perhaps it did—that Mr Kleinhapl has a bowl haircut and sparse mustache-beard, while Mr Woyke is bald as a stone.

Remarkably, when the petite Mr Kleinhapl was on stage alone, the impression of his smallness left me—he seemed adequately sized, even perfectly sized, for his instrument. In fact, when he stood to take a bow after the Gulda cadenza, I noticed that his cello was almost exactly as tall as he—or he was almost exactly as tall as his cello—I am honestly not sure which way to phrase it. But when Mr Woyke returned for the Rachmaninoff sonata, my impression of Mr Kleinhapl’s smallness returned: he seemed squeezed into a corner, dwarfed not just by the man behind him, but by the piano, which suddenly appeared an instrument fashioned for Titans. Even his proximity to the edge of the stage made him seem smaller, the giant looming in the background like a mountain.

Maybe the stage was an Ames room, I thought, and we (the members of the audience) were the victims of an optical illusion. But had this been the case, when the two musicians approached each other after each piece to take a bow, they would have arrived at some equilibrium middle stature. Instead, the reverse happened: when Mr Kleinhapl, animated by the music, took Mr Woyke’s right hand in his left, the former seemed to shrink, and the latter to grow, until I thought the pianist would slip the cellist into his coat pocket, and exit the stage with him.

And so an element of the carnivalesque was helpless but to enter Town Hall that afternoon, and soon I began imagining the performance this way: I thought Mr Kleinhapl should rightly be standing on Mr Woyke’s shoulder, or balanced on a chair held by one leg in the pianist’s right hand, the latter dressed like a strongman. They might have juggled torches and performed feats of acrobacy.

And yet, musically, was this not precisely what they were doing?

From a musical perspective, what was most curious is that the visual difference invited me to ponder the musical difference in timbre and sonority between the two instruments—to listen, that is, not just to two different melodies, or melody plus accompaniment, but to two different means of production of sound; to hear the cello as a cello and the piano as a piano, and to remark mentally on the contrast between them.

The afternoon’s contrasts did not end with the performers. Unlike the other PSC series at Washington Irving High School, where non-balcony seating is general admission, seats at Town Hall are assigned. My seat is broken; I usually sit one seat to the left, if it is unoccupied. Anyway, my seat is directly behind the seat of a gentleman who contorts his body according to the mood of the music, alternately crumpling and straightening like a puppet when its strings slacken and then are pulled taut, throwing his head back and his hands in the air one moment, fingers tensed, as if he were silently crying out, and then rocking forward until his head is almost between his knees. I don’t know whether his movements are a result of disease (they are vaguely Parkinsonian), or a constitutional lack of inhibition, or simply a deep connection to the music, which, on this particular afternoon, alternately captivated and alienated me.

After the first of three pieces by Alexander Zemlinsky with which the concert opened, and then again after the end of the three pieces together, the ushers admitted latecomers, at which point two young women entered and sat to my immediate left. One of them could not stop neurotically and metronomically picking at the corner of her program, and both of them fidgeted distractedly until the intermission, after which they did not return. By then I had already reached across the one nearer to get the one further to leave her program alone—this during the Schnittke, a moody piece punctuated by long silences, which had held me riveted until the program-picking and fidgeting started, and after which I found it impossible to regain my concentration.

Oh, I cursed these young women’s progeny to the seventh generation—I, who on this particular afternoon would have had the musicians juggling torches, and with a popcorn vendor walking up and down the aisles of my imagination!

* Interestingly, according to the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, in his biography of Domenico Scarlatti—about which and whom and I will be posting presently—“pedals … were rare in the eighteenth century … the dampers of most early pianos were lifted by knee levers” (p. 182 of the Apollo edition).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *