Sunday, 5 May 2013

About the NAC and standing ovations

There is a strange tradition in Ottawa and I cannot explain it.

At the National Arts Centre a standing ovation is given for every show, you can fart on stage, you will get a standing ovation. Why? No one can explain it. Presently we have as Concert master and Chief Conductor Pinchas Zukerman, he is a good, knowledgeable musician with a life of musical knowledge under his belt. No discussion on those points, however he has been with the NAC Orchestra for several years and I get the feeling now that he is just coasting along, cold fish school of conducting. It has also been announced that he will retire in 2 years time. He gets rapturous applause every time he is on stage, why?

The musical programs every year are very safe, basically it is a program of wide appeal so it can be sold quickly, a little Mozart, Beethoven, Handel at Christmas, Bach and maybe some Brahms and voilà, no need to go further, you will get a standing ovation every time.  Why? well in part because the public in Ottawa does not make any demands and is easily satisfied. We get soloist, think of Lang Lang, who plays here regularly. For piano soloist Rachmaninoff is good, lots of hammering on the keyboard, looks complicated and its noisy music, who will bury who, orchestra vs soloist. The last soloist to play such a piece missed a few notes and at one point was out of sink with the orchestra, but that did not appear to phase anyone. It is all delivered as if it was some government program presented in the usual safe prescribe formula. Standing ovation!

The program for the evening will start with the orchestra playing a piece then an intermission while the piano is wheeled into place, the soloist comes on stage does his shtick gets said standing ovation and leaves. Orchestra returns plays a piece gets standing ovation, end of program. God forbid there should be an encore or something original. I was told once and I tend to believe it, that the musical program had to end at a certain time every night because otherwise the NAC would have to pay overtime to the musicians and there is no money, so you are home safe and in bed, snug as a bug by 11pm.

Tonight we went to the ballet, the Alonzo King, Lines Ballet of San Francisco was presenting two pieces, one entitled Resin and the other Shéhérazade (2009). What is important to notice in this title is the year (2009) in brackets. Many in the audience, including myself, thought this would be the classic ballet by Michel Fokine, WRONG!

Alonzo King presented a new choreography with music composed for it by Zakir Hussain. The programme spoke of Persian, Indian influences on original instruments. The music of the piece Resin was quite beautiful by itself. For Sheherazade not the same thing at all, it should have been called Bollywood in Thailand.

The Lines Ballet has good dancers, but it was far more acrobatics and gymnastics reminiscent of Le Cirque du Soleil. The dancers also all looked like Gym rats and not dancers, very muscular, sporting beards and furry torso. Sorry but if you intend in presenting a ballet which is completely new in choreography and music do not try to tell the public that it is like the old classic everyone knows.

I became concerned when I read the program, words like ''cutting edge'', ''exceptional'', ''transformative'', ''luminescent'', appeared everywhere, the program told us that the dancers were ''exquisite'', the troupe de ballet alludes to what is visible in the phenomenal world. As for the director Alonzo King, we are told ''he is a renowned visionary''. The music of Rimsky-Korsakov had been ''re-interpreted'', really using 2 bars of the entire score on Thai instruments is not re-interpretation, Rimsky-Korsakov would be right to sue Alonzo for this act of vandalism. We were no longer in St-Petersburg more like a Phuhket show for all inclusive package tour, trying to pass itself off as high art to the unsuspecting tourist.

In the program, as if to make it more palatable, readers were told that this work was first done in celebration of Les ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. It had that flavour of a work created on commission, the creator puts something together for the patrons who are footing the bill. No patron will dare criticize given the amount of money they put into this production, so as not to look foolish, in this case (scandal plague) Princess Caroline of Monaco.
In the end they got a standing ovation, however I did notice not everyone was applauding and many had left quickly at intermission.

I thought I would like once to see an honest audience reaction. We did hear giggling during the performance when it got somewhat ludicrous, no story line, no costumes, no sets, just dancers going through the motions with Asiatic scented music. After five minutes it all looked very repetitive.


  1. Canadians used to be quite stingy with standing ovations. We were known for it. But it's true -- everything and anything gets a standing O these days.

  2. I am glad to hear this is not an "Arizona" thing - when we moved here, I quickly noticed everything got a standing ovation - even things mediocre. At first I thought the audiences had no ear (or taste) but these are 'veteran' theatre/music goers. I think it is a 'dumbing down' phenomenon where everything and everyone gets an A regardless. I thought it was 'being polite' but as that is lacking so here, I know it is not that !

  3. That Scheherazade sounds like a fairly familiar balletic tackfest - I mean the original choreography and designs are kitsch, but so classily so!

    UK concert audiences are VERY reluctant to give standing ovations. If they happen, it's usually because the relatively few young people in the audience lead the way. Opera house audiences likewise. Even for the near-perfect Don Carlo at the Royal Opera on Saturday, there wasn't much standing in the stalls, though the rest of us were on our feet. Theatre gets standing ovations much more readily.

    1. David, indeed we go to all three at the NAC, Dance,symphonie, and theatre. All three have very different crowds attending. Theatre at the NAC is usually very left wing, social message, green, feminist and anti-establishment, so the crowd will give more of a standing ovation the stronger the play was with their own sentiment. At the Symphony it is very middle of the road audience, happy if the tune is familiar and good ole Zukerman conducts, there a standing ovation is common. As for the dance, it is a more feminine audience would say 80% and women tend to be a little bit more critical and you will get a 50-50 standing ovation crowd. But in my book standing ovations is for exceptional artists who truly move you. Per example Angela Hewitt who we met and spoke took at a private function, a local Ottawa girl, brilliant pianist in my book and I give her a standing ovation.
      She is such a distinct pianist that with my eyes closed I can tell that she is playing, her still is that different from others.