On Sunday May 11, 2012, my girlfriend and I attended a Hartford Symphony concert under the direction of Maestra Carolyn Kuan. This is the first time I have heard the orchestra under their new conductor. The program was all Russian composers and consisted of the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. More on the music later, but first commentary as to the experience with the staff at the Belding Theater in Bushnell Center.
As I am in a wheelchair I used the valet parking just around the corner on Trinity St. The guys there couldn’t have been nicer. They just allowed me to park right there saying I could just come and get the car after the concert without having to wait for them to bring the car. This alone saved a good half hour wait after the concert. They even offered to help my girlfriend and I in getting the wheelchair out of the car. Well done!
Once entering the theater I encountered what can only be considered straight up incompetence and indolence. Upon entering and presenting tickets to the usher I asked where our seats where. I explained that I would transfer from my wheelchair to my seat. This usher simply pointed across the theater and told us to go see the next usher. Upon asking this usher to show us to our seats, we were brought down the aisle to Orchestra Row D only to be told it would be better for me to go from the other side. So back up the aisle we went only to be passed off to usher number three who simply pointed and said row D. She didn’t offer to accompany us to the row nor offer advice as to where we could put the wheelchair once I had transferred. We found the row and I moved myself across the 8 seats or so to settle in our seats which were dead center 4 rows back. Wonderful! Just to be sure my girlfriend presented our tickets to yet a fourth usher to be sure we were in the right place. (You see where this is going?) So we settled in to spend a romantic afternoon listening to great music and enjoying each other’s company.
Five minutes before a performance a rather grumpy man carrying coffee and his wife came through our row and then promptly told us we were in their seats. He was right. We were mortified and explained that the ushers had placed us here and that I was in a wheelchair and since the performance was about to start would he please take our seats which were two rows back dead center (the sixth row)? The grumpy coffee junky said he paid “a lot of money for the seats” (his seats and the seats two rows back were the same price btw) and he wanted them. His wife intervened and said no problem. I explained again that we were seated there in error and since it would take time to get the wheelchair back and clear two rows of people and since the tickets we had were the same cost and equally good it made sense just to swap seats. They took their seats behinds us two rows. A minute later the house manager came over and told me the gentleman was insisting on having his seat and at intermission I would have to move. I agreed but told the house manager that 4 of her ushers had placed us here and that she would need to clear the 2 rows and bring my wheelchair so I could safely move.
At intermission the house manager came down and informed us that we could remain seated. I again reiterated to her that none of this would have happened if the ushers had actually done their job. She looked annoyed. My girlfriend was wonderful and resisted the urge to give the insistent “gentleman” a piece of her mind. We could only conclude that the guy thought we were lying about me being in a wheelchair because we didn’t feel like moving. Pretty sad commentary on today’s society when a man at a symphony hall cannot be taken at his word. I certainly do not fit the stereotypical guy in a wheelchair I guess. I’m younger, happy, energetic and I’m there with my beautiful girlfriend. I hope he stuck around long enough after the concert to actually see what I have to do to get back into the chair etc. As far as the ushers are concerned I could only conclude that they are poorly trained if at all. They exhibited no knowledge of the seating in the theater and even worse had no customer relation skills let alone common decency. Now on to the music.
The Mussorgsky was the first piece. I honestly can’t comment as I was so upset and felt embarrassed and humiliated by what had just happened that I could not relax and enjoy it. At the conclusion of the piece Ms. Kaun addressed the audience changing the program by concluding the first half with the Shostakovich symphony. She took a few minutes to remark about the joviality of the symphony and had the orchestra play some key themes and examples. She then embarked in a wonderful rendition of the piece. Ms. Kaun has brought a pleasant precision to the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and it was well reflected by the musicians. My girlfriend and I noted that prior to the concert a number of the musicians were on stage shedding their parts. After intermission we had the pleasure of hearing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto played by the HSO Artist in Residence Sirena Huang. She was absolutely wonderful. The first movement was absolutely outstanding and the audience could not stop itself from giving her a standing ovation at the conclusion of the movement. Terrible breach of etiquette I know but she was brilliant. The next two movements were just as great and we were treated to an unaccompanied encore after 3 curtain calls. Maestra Kuan truly is a breath of fresh air to the HSO. She has corrected some of the sloppiness I had noticed by the orchestra under the previous conductor and especially reigned in the brass to where they actually sound balanced as opposed to trying to drown out the rest of the orchestra.
A few other comments. As to the grumpy man and his cup of coffee, do you seriously allow people with drinks in the hall? What’s next? Peanut vendors up and down the aisles? The Belding Theater is a lovely hall so how about trying to keep it that way. I also noticed prior to the performance a number of the musicians on stage texting away on their cell phones. I find this absolutely unprofessional. Leave the damn phone backstage. Some orchestra members could also stand to be a little less chatty prior to the concertmaster’s entrance. After intermission, one violinist had his mouth stuffed full and was busy chewing like a horse as the concertmaster made his way onstage. I also take some umbrage to the “dress down” Sunday attire of the orchestra. I expect an orchestra to dress accordingly with respect to the great music they are performing. I grew up seeing the great Pittsburgh Symphony under Steinberg and Previn and the decorum that existed with the PSO is a standard that should be maintained by all orchestras. I realize we have become a more informal society however some traditions are worth preserving.