A Composer's Adventures

Small Is Good

Small Is Good“Big is not necessarily bad.” Those words came from Richard Nixon when he was president of the United States. I thought a lot about that remark and finally came to the conclusion that big too often is bad. We saw the cost of banks and corporations “too big to fail” in the Wall Street debacle. US military actions abroad have ballooned. And giant food and pharmaceutical industries control our nutrition with chemicals that are often poorly checked.

But for me the subject of Big vs Small takes on special significance when talking about music. In the arts, we tend to measure success by the business it creates.  The bigger the concert hall and size of audience, the more prestigious the event. So a performance by a symphony orchestra is considered highly significant, whereas performances in smaller halls are usually not.  In Toronto, they mostly go undetected and rarely rate a review in the media.

My listening habits are pretty intense — three to four nights a week are spent in performing arts venues. I have nothing against large orchestra and opera performances and do attend them, but increasingly I am finding my most satisfying experiences are in smaller places that can only be found through the social media or friends.

Looking at just the last few weeks, the performances in Toronto that impressed me most were a saxophone and voice duo concert at the Gallery 345 by Wallace Halladay and Xin Wang (audience around 50) in daring contemporary repertoire; John McLeod’s Rex Hotel Orchestra at a packed Rex Hotel jazz bar; and most recently an exciting event with Bruce Cassidy improvising on the electronic valve instrument (EVI) with sitarist Anwar Khurshid and percussionist Waleed Abdulhamid in a studio loft at 301 Richmond Street. About 50 people were riveted by this blend of sounds from Canada, Pakistan and Ghana.

Back at Gallery 345 a few nights later, I heard violist Rivka Golani in a recital with pianist Stephan Sylvestre. Again I was no more than 10 feet from the performers, this time enjoying the excellent performance of traditional repertoire.  A friend in the music business said, “This concert should have been attended by 600 people. Just ten years ago, it would have been in a larger hall.”  A selfish voice inside me cried “NO! It wouldn’t have been the same.”

This opens the door to another issue:  how can our supremely talented musicians make a living playing in the small venues I love so much? But that is another though very important discussion.

Music begins in an intimate setting, the composers’ or improvisers’ minds, and will always be looking for venues that convey the intended emotional language.  The big pieces fare well in large concert halls with good acoustics. The smaller works are best felt, seen and heard in smaller places.

Michael Colgrass

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