Written By Conor Coady
If you were to awaken from a coma and find yourself in the middle of a classical music concert, there would be visual cues to tell you where you found yourself: performers dressed like they’re headed to their high school prom and audience members, dressed nearly as well, showing off their ability to sit still are two of them. But the truly fail-proof sign that you were at a classical show wouldn’t be visual; it would be the silence imposed on, and imposed by, the audience. Attentive listening is the classical enthusiast’s badge of honour; by embracing it you contribute to the sacred silence that helps bring out the subtleties of sound you’re (hopefully) enjoying. Whispering and fidgeting – let alone talking or walking around – are strictly policed by the severe looks and shhh-ing of classical music’s unofficial-yet-vigilant audience gestapo. And this means that you’re more likely to strike up a great conversation at a funeral home or during a Vipassana meditation retreat than you are with the person sitting next to you during a classical concert.
With these basic parameters in mind, and so as to provide some context for the concert reviewed here, I’d like to bring up something that almost every classical audience is exposed to and takes part in, something I want to call wrapper torture. Wrapper torture usually takes place late in a program, after the initial, muted excitement and respectful, tense quiet of a concert’s early moments have faded. It takes place just as the energies of enthusiastic schoolchildren, eager to prove how respectful they can be in the face of something supposed to impress them, are beginning to run out. 70, 80 or 90 minutes in, even the most experienced audience almost always experiences a collective breakdown that is channeled through one unfortunate soul.
The breakdown doesn’t happen all at once: first there is a quiet cough, then somebody else sneezes, then – usually during a crucial, quiet passage – any remaining semblance of sacred silence is smashed when a tragically heroic audience member has a full-on coughing fit. I can’t give a credible scientific explanation for the predictable coughing fit breakdown (it seems to happen no matter the season, weather or location), but the armchair sociologist in me thinks that it’s just something to be expected when a bunch of people, living in a world where total silence is rare, all try to shut up together for a good chunk of time. And it’s after the spell has been broken, after the full-blown coughing fit has played out, that wrapper torture begins.
That’s because the person whose coughing spell has passed usually isn’t having their first hack attack; they’ve come prepared. The delinquent cougher reaches for their insurance policy in the form of a cough drop lying in their purse or their coat or their pocket. So just as the silence is settling back in, in the climactic moment of this predictable social ritual, the hopeful cough-correcting, wannabe-lozenge-sucker tries peeling off the wrapper, one tiny creaking-plastic-fold at a time. It always seems to take ages, and by the time the wrapper is finally off, everybody’s nerves are toast and the focus of the room has strayed from the harmonious instrumental sound waves they’re here to hear to instead firmly root itself in the anguished expectation of more wrapper explosions. Even though everybody learns as a child that the most painless way to take off a band aid is to rip it off in a single, decisive pull, the implications of this lesson just don’t seem to carry over well later in life. Wrapper torture is real.
During a classical piano concert last Wednesday, the conditions were all in place for torture. The man to my left, a well-known Montreal piano teacher, came in after a smoke break with his winter jacket fully zipped up with an extra Velcro-seal for protection from the cold. As he settled in, mid-performance, he peeled apart the Velcro seal, inch-by-painful inch. It was late in the concert, during a quiet, intense passage. A musician himself, he was providing another example of the ephemerality of childhood band aid lessons.
But this time, nobody blinked. No one hissed and no one shhhh-ed him. The show went on, and what might have been a blasphemous moment of shattered concentration wasn’t disturbing or distracting at all. This is because we were at Résonance Café, a particularly promising location laid out as if it were designed by a genius functionalist architect looking for the perfect space to initiate curious-but-casual noobs into the pleasures of classical music. And it’s why I want to talk about the where of this concert even more that the what.
The concert was part of Beyond the Concert Stage: Classical Piano Nights, a series that takes place on the first Wednesday of each month at Résonance. It featured two sets, one by Université de Montréal’s Nicole Lorenz, the other by McGill’s Jiu-Sheng Li. Jiu-Sheng’s set presented rarely-heard works by Schumann (the Op. 8 Allegro) and Scryabin (24 Preludes, Op. 11), both of which showed off his incredible, flexible dexterity deployed with ease, although there were some moments of (unintentionally) blurred pedal effects. Lorenz played Bartok’s Sonata and Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata in an interpretation that brought out the folk-music affinities between the two Hungarian composers. She got a consistently rich, warm tone from Resonance’s Baldwin grand piano that was beautiful and satisfying throughout.
Lorenz has been co-producing the series, which she helped reboot in 2015 with pianist Olivia Musat, a recent graduate of Université de Montréal’s doctorate performance program. Both women lead professional lives that involve much more than practicing and performing piano: Musat doubles as a tai-chi instructor and Lorenz is planning a career in nursing after she finishes her doctorate. Beyond the concert stage indeed.
What Café Résonance offers performers and what makes it a great initiation space for classical neophytes is the result of classical music being brought into a hybrid space it badly needs. Classical soloists usually play in extreme circumstances: either the demanding solitude of the practice room where the only company is the typically harsh judgement of your internal ear, or the thrilling and horrifying concert space of public performance where your soul is on trial every moment. Whereas other performing arts (think of stand-up comedy) promote a more psychologically healthy fail-your-way-to-success mentality, there isn’t much in the middle between the perfect and the catastrophic in the world of classical piano.
But Café Résonance provides an unusual, invaluable middle ground. I’d doubt that anybody had classical piano in mind when they designed the place, but the ways the sound waves bounce around the informally segregated spaces here strengthen the foundations of a rare, informal coming together of expert performers and new listeners. The stage is tucked into the back of Resonance’s deep, long and narrow space and is segregated by curtains to one side. I’ve performed here and can tell you that this creates a sound bubble where the performer hears virtually nothing from the audience. And while this doesn’t create perfect sound conditions for projecting a classical concert, what is lost acoustically is more than made up for sociologically.
As you look out from the stage tucked into the back of Resonance towards the audience, first you see Resonance’s widest seating area, where 40 or 50 people can sit comfortably (this is where the most enthusiastic, quietest listeners end up, creating a micro-climate of intense silence). Behind that, closer to the entrance, is the kitchen and bar area as well as some elevated seating. This area acts as a sonic buffer zone with glasses clinking and food being prepared where people can choose to focus their ears on the concert or chat quietly without bothering anybody. Behind that, closest to the entrance, is a wider space with seating where people can just pretend they’re at a bar without paying too much attention to the performance or bothering the people close to the stage. It’s like being in a musical submarine where everybody can see everybody but people get to go where they want so they can hear what they want.
As for the quality of the music, you might not know that Montreal is a genuine powerhouse of classical piano production; for decades, some of the best pianists in the world have been training here. Everybody has heard of Julliard in New York but how many people realize that for plenty of Julliard graduates, the ambition is to get accepted to do a performance doctorate here in Montreal? The pianists performing at Resonance are usually doing high-level test-runs, playing repertoire that is polished at around 90 or 95% of the final version they’ll hope to have when they tempt fate in more formal concert environment. And except for a few professional musicians (I recognized six at Wednesday’s concert), the audience is made up mostly of curious, non-expert listeners who are testing the classical waters.
I asked a couple audience members after the concert if they had noticed the few minor slips from the performers, slips that aren’t worth reporting in this review except to make this point: the people I asked loved the show and had no idea what “slips” I was talking about. Café Résonance performers get to enjoy the rare pleasure of an enthusiastic, curious and less-than-harsh audience while the audience gets to enjoy performances that are indistinguishable from the real, rarified thing they would hear for $40 or more if they attended a stuffy solo recital at La Maison Symphonique. And just to hammer home the too-good-to-be-trueness of the monthly Classical Piano Night format, admission is a suggested 10$ donation (and nobody will frown at you if you just show up and blow your money on beer instead).
On top of the unpunished Velcro-ripping moment I mentioned earlier, there were two other moments when I was reminded just how special the Résonance Café space is for classical performing. One of the Ligeti pieces Lorenz performed uses only two notes, played at different pitches and volumes. Midway through, the microwave beeper from the kitchen went off, adding a third frequency to the sonic environment. In every other classical environment I’ve experienced, this would have been a disaster, but at Résonance, it was a hilarious form of counterpoint that brought out a silent smile from the entire audience. Later, about halfway through the second set of the concert, I sensed the guy sitting to my right getting a little fidgety. He got up and walked to the bathroom next to the stage. Then he headed behind me to the bar. When he sat back down, pint in hand, he seemed soothed and ready to enjoy the final moments of Jui-Shend Li’s excellent performance of Scryabin Preludes.
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote “the way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear.” After a night of classical piano at Résonance Café, you could be forgiven for thinking that solving some problems – even the perennial problem of wrapper torture – is simply a matter of finding the right space.
Resonance Cafe’s schedule can be found HERE.