My fall break was bookmarked by two very different concerts in two very different corners of the country. The first, a Zedd Halloween Special on the Las Vegas strip at a prominent nightclub. The second, an attempt by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to perform Elgar, as well as some Haydn, in a well-known concert hall. Setting aside the obvious differences that can be pointed out between these two concerts, there was one respect in which they were oddly convergent: the presence of religious ritual in modern-day performance.
- Drops and Awe in Las Vegas
Getting to the Omnia Night Club, where Zedd will play, is an ordeal in itself. First the Uber from our hotel to Caesar’s Palace. Then, a game designed by matryoshka dolls: enter the hotel, take an escalator to a different level, walk for a stretch to the casino, navigate the casino, find the entrance of the Omnia, wait in line, and finally, enter.
The similarity of the music played before Zedd arrives and the music he eventually plays during the concert-proper renders it difficult not to raise some of the more uncomfortable questions one need ask whenever attending an EDM artist’s concert: What is the “performance” here? Why are we dishing out extra money to see this artist pressing play on their pre-recorded tracks? Is this a futile lurch towards meaning on our part? On Zedd’s part? Is this a self-deceiving ploy to brag on social media? Worse, to boast about it in a campus publication? God forbid. Why is Sandstorm by Darude playing? Is it still 2018? Did I just get groped? In sum: What are we doing here?
But as the concert progresses, I begin to see that special something one might not get at a standard night out, be it at a regular evening in a nightclub or a weekend on the Street. I get a sense for why people come to this thing: Zedd, standing at his control-station-turned pulpit, dons his Wonder-Woman outfit, striking Zeus-like poses and directing the crowd this way and that. However, all of the action, it turns out, occurs in the space behind the stage itself. The apparently huge, cave-like space behind Zedd is ovular, and in the poor lighting coupled with seventy forms of laser-beam in front of us, it could be a few dozen feet or miles deep. As I contemplate the nature of space, “How Deep Is Your Love” blasts, building rather unnaturally to the drop. What seems like a million little lights float in that massive-or-tiny space, rivaling even the best Colorado meteor showers. Suddenly, the faux-stars all change color, and the crowd seems totally rapt as Zedd bellows, “ARE YOU READY!?” In a stroke of total thematic irrelevance, someone runs out with a massive Chinese flag and waves it around violently. The speakers rattle my ribcage, laser lights graze my pupils, and yet all I can do is stare into that cavern behind Zedd. In a moment that would make Nietzsche proud, the cavern, now infinitely deep, stares back.
The bass drops. Many people around me cry tears of what seem to be immense joy as they jostle for space like liquid in a container, and I’m somehow touched as well. To my left, one couple is wearing headphones and doesn’t seem to partake. A wave of euphoria washes over everyone as Zedd fist-pumps and people hop up and down, staring deep into a space so large it could be heaven itself. In this moment, the crowd is part of something larger than itself.
It’s often said that religion has given up and died in modern society, and I’m generally inclined to agree. But, I’ll admit that somewhere in the cavernous insides of the Omnia Nightclub, in Las Vegas, Nevada, between a dangling stripper carrying a massive bottle of champagne, a schizophrenic chandelier-set-turned-spaceship, and bowel-movement inducing base; somewhere around there, God is alive and well, and he’s wearing a Wonder Woman jumpsuit.
2. The Symphony
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is sober, clean-cut, and rather orderly. I stride over the atrium’s red carpet, hop up the stairs, and land in my second-balcony seat, stage-left. I’m lucky enough to be on the edge of the balcony, directly overlooking the orchestra. I rest my head on my arms and listen.
Ever since I fell asleep at a 2013 Janine Jansen concert in the Royal Concertgebouw (made even more embarrassing by the fact that Jansen was the love of my 17-year-old life), I have resolved to attend classical music concerts with sugar-free Red Bull in hand. Energized, I listened to the orchestra tune.
The most noticeable feature of the concert is the divergence between advertisement and reality. On the cover of the program stands Andris Nelsons, BSO musical director and Latvian conductor-extraordinaire, on a podium, behind a small fence-like divider that separates him from the audience. As if ripped from a Michelangelo fresco, his arm is outstretched, the baton appears to give life to the orchestra in front of him. What we can see of his profile in the picture is a well-defined jawline, a childish exuberance, and an exotic Baltic ruggedness, all in one well-built, musical man. Indeed, Nelsons seems the very model of a modern music maker.
The real thing is both more disappointing and far better than the advertisement. Disappointing is the cheap marketing we’ve been given to make models out of musicians: From my perch to the left of the orchestra, I see that Nelsons, contra his photo-shoot, is actually bit chubby, and is more Ricky Gervais than Riga Adonis. Rather than grazing the fence, he leans on it so heavily that I am often scared he will break it.
And yet, the music he makes together with his orchestra is better than anything I could have imagined. The players are putty in Nelsons’ trained hands. Haydn is kept light, airy, and exemplifies a consummately apollonian beauty emanating from the well-coordinated orchestra. Nelsons, at his pulpit, wields the baton, and together with his band of music-makers, runs the audience through the spectrum of emotions effortlessly. Pure joy at humorous pizzicatos. Unmatched attentiveness in rambling passages. And, in the final movement of the Elgar Enigma Variations, a dialogue between cello and violin that even a child could recognize is a love song. A tragic one that is nothing but a back and forth from the oldest dialogue there is. Here, there are tears.
It is in the silences between movements, and even between notes, that I locate the action. As Nelsons’ hands hover, fending off the cellos from coming in just a thirty-second of a beat longer than the composer would have intended, the hearts of everyone in the audience lurch. We watch the dozens of performers unify in a way that would make any sports team blush, all at the direction of this visionary. It’s enough to make you pray for more. Like a deity himself, Nelsons moves from the silent to the transcendent. With the music he makes, my materialism threatens to abandon me at every turn.
A couple keeps talking behind me. I remind them that although a concert hall contains a place where you can get drinks, it is not itself a bar. This fact, I tell them, makes it worth considering not talking during the performance. The guy looks at me as if he could push me off my little ledge. I stare on indignantly. They leave after intermission. I still carry some hope that they left on my encouragement, rather than to honor some other commitment they might have had. If so, it would have been a productive fall break.