A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.
09 February 2012
The Palais Theater is a 90 year old grand building set next to the world’s oldest rollercoaster in St. Kilda Beach, Melbourne. It is the type of establishment that hosts 9000-seat events for large yet refined concerts – orchestras, Crosby Stills and Nash, Erykah Badu. It is the type of establishment in which I would not usually expect to find myself. But through the graces of meeting fantastic people I have become friends with one of the managers of the theater. And so it was with a ticket she gave me that I was granted access to a concert that had piqued my interest since my arrival in the country: Tim Minchin vs. the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. The promo poster made Minchin look like a mad modern classical composer. The reviews said it was vulgar and rocked. The intersection of those two concepts is a place I wanted to find a diner and sit a while with a coffee, people watching.
The theater itself was even more gorgeous inside than I had expected. Large stone columns, art deco light fixtures, wood trim, and plaster crumbling just enough on the ceilings to give it an impression of the glory that may or may not have existed back in its heyday. I was able to find my friend and catch up for a few minutes before the show. I filled her in on Tasmania, she updated me on her progress with the new album. Then I found my way to my seat, walking past rows and rows of people who had bought their tickets months prior, ending at the seventh row, center. I sat in stunned amazement, a mix of my seat location and further inspection of the surroundings.
Minchin took the stage in true rock star fashion, appearing mysteriously in a cage donning tight pants and teased-up hair. Smoke blew, blue lights glowed, and he bellowed into the mic in pose after pose. He rocked a self-aware song about the big rock intro, followed immediately by a song played on piano and sung in the third person about a music nerd who wants to be a rock star but knows it won’t happen since he plays the piano, so instead writes self-referential songs in the third person. The lyrics were clever and well written, enough to allow how self-indulgent and meta it all was.
Minchin performed like Bill Bailey and looked like Russell Brand. He told jokes, he rambled on stories, he talked to people in the crowd about their lack of change in facial expressions during a horribly racist song, he negotiated seat politics for a couple who came in during the performance to find their seats taken. He told a joke about p-values.* His energy was high and engaging, without being manic or forced. He told stories and set up jokes in a way that sounded fresh and made you feel excited to listen, where only after the performance did you realize that he probably has told the same joke with the same setup a hundred times before. He was the performer I had been hoping to see so many times over at previous concerts.
The lion’s share of his performance was the music. The lyrics were inspired, clever takes on topics that ranged from a goofy lamentation of lactose intolerance to a critical view of religious miracle confirmation bias to a satire on the power of language focused on the six-letter word containing a couple of Gs, an R and an E, an I and an N (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0IVuGK7sAw). The lyrics were at times frustratingly clever, because I was so intent on following the jokes that I couldn’t pay enough attention to the second half of the name on the marquee.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra provided a phenomenal contrast to the standard 3 piece rock band and gave the performance depth that most musical comedians lack when they get on stage with only clever lyrics and an acoustic guitar. Not being sufficiently experienced in classical music appreciation I cannot with legitimacy say if the orchestra was on point or tightly tuned or experts at their instruments. I can say, to my musically appreciating ears, that they were fantastic. The music soared at points, creating lovely harmonies or abrasive cacophonies as appropriate, generally taking a back seat to Minchin’s lyrics and front 3-piece rock band, but always adding a texture and fullness to the music that drew me in, engulfing me in irreverent and lovely sounds.
Minchin played with the 60-piece, joking with the conductor, trying to make the lead violin lose her composure, and calling out random instruments to play solos during the big rock breakdown song at the end of the set. Minchin’s big hat tip to the orchestra was the encore, where they took front and center duties in creating the aural world for “Not Perfect,” accompanied by Minchin on piano and vocals. The arrangement turned a surprisingly touching solo piano song into a complete piece that could reach into the jaded and cynical and make them feel something. It wasn’t the hilarious joke or the musical frenzy expected to end the show, but it was the perfect method of sending the fans off into the world aware that they had just watched something that, more than funny, was musically brilliant.
* To paraphrase: [I’m about to play a new song. It is a bit of a risk, but I’ve got 9000 people here. I have friends who try out new material on small crowds in pubs. That’s no good. There’s not enough data points. But you guys are statistically significant. You can’t get a meaningful p-value in a pub… 80% of you probably didn’t get that. The other 20% probably know enough to know that I don’t know what I’m talking about.]