Last night, I attended the first of this season's six "Engine 408" concerts by members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The program consisted entirely of Berio Sequenzas (nos. I, IXa, and XIV) for solo instruments, and Davidovsky Synchronisms (nos. 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12) for solo instruments with electronic sound. This was my first contact with each of these pieces, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Kudos to the SPCO for creating a space (both literally and figuratively) for new music to be heard performed by world-class players (which increases the chances that people will actually dig it), and for only $10 at that (ditto).
As with each of these that I've attended, the seats were nearly full, which I would estimate represents at least 150 people. While I'm sure that the concert didn't pay for itself through ticket sales (I'm assuming they weren't expecting it to, and if they did, they would charge accordingly), it at least goes to show that prominently featuring a name like Berio does not in and of itself guarantee lackluster attendance. In fact, this was the second performance of the week, which puts the total number of people who did not turn and run screaming in the opposite direction even higher. And while I for one would always like to see more such programming undertaken by the full orchestra, I also believe that forcing it on people who don't want to hear it is the wrong way to go. I have little tolerance for the now-perfunctory pairing of classical warhorses with token contemporary pieces that holds sway in the orchestral world today; it would be nice if there were a subscription series concert every now and then that heavily featured modernist works, but failing that, putting us off in our own little corner with exceptional space, performers, and pricing isn't a bad deal either.
Upon first hearing, my favorite piece of the bunch was without question Davidovsky's Synchronisms No. 6 for Piano and Electronic Sound...which is why I was a bit surprised to learn that it won the Pulitzer Prize...in 1971. Reasonable people seem to have reached a consensus that the Pulitzer doesn't really mean anything, or perhaps even that it merely tells us what to stay away from (this irreverent summary of Pulitzer-winning pieces has made the rounds before, but if you haven't seen it, it's pretty funny; never mind that the writer obviously is not a fan of the Davidovsky). I actually can't claim familiarity with most of the pieces, and I probably could not name another piece composed in 1971 off the top of my head, but I really enjoyed this one, and I fully intend to invest in a recording when time and finances permit.
Sadly, until I stumble on another performance locally (not likely, I think), I won't be able to delight in the various reactions of middlebrow audience members. One gentleman a couple of rows in front of me would turn and look at his family with eyebrows raised and a smirk on his face every time the soloist or the tape tossed off a particularly gnarly riff. But the best by far were the people who forgot about the tape part while it was tacet for a minute or more, then were so startled by its next entrance that they jumped a couple of inches out of their seats. Perhaps we will know for sure that electronic music has become mainstream when this is no longer the norm.