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Musical Lunch Break

November 3, 2010

cypress_string_quartet-240_square.jpgIs it a good thing or a bad thing that normal concert etiquette goes out of the window for lunchtime and commuter hour concerts?

I kind of think it's a shame that the format allows people to wander in and out at will and read a book or take care of some work while having the live music on as "background" to their activities.

On the other hand, there's something very special about being able to come in off the street for an hour and forget the crazy world outside while immersing yourself in gorgeous live music in a casual setting.

Though some people around me were only half paying attention to the music (they appeared to be working) I spent a wonderful 45 minutes or so in the company of the Cypress String Quartet yesterday as the group played at Old St Mary's Cathedral in downtown San Francisco as part of the church's "Noontime Concert" series.

But I broke etiquette rules in that I was very late in getting to the venue.

The roomy church was pretty full of people. The part of the program which I managed to catch, Stravinsky's spiky Concertino and Elena Ruehr's playful and kinetic String Quartet No. 3 (2001), a new discovery for me, lifted my heart. The Cypress Quartet played elegantly and with a pristine sense of ensemble. The articulation in the Ruehr was especially delicate and precise. The players seemed very serious though. Their mood seemed not to go with the laid-back atmosphere in the church.

As I slipped my suggested donation of $5 into a box on my way out, I made myself promise to seek out more of these lunchtime events. I'm sure they're happening all over the city. I just don't get away from my desk enough in the middle of the day.

And as for the debate about whether people should treat such events with the same reverence as they do evening concerts or eat their sandwiches throughout, I think there's a case to be made on both fronts. By their very nature, these concerts are meant to be less formal. But there are limits. Audiences should at least have respect for the performers. Cell phone conversations should be banned. And in cases where tickets are not sold, everyone in the room should feel obliged to leave a donation.

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