Here and There – Performances

In commenting on ‘here and there’ I usually write about travel.  This is a little different.  In one sense, this is still about places, but concert halls and theatre stages rather than countries.  In another sense, it is about being transported, especially by music.  Music has been a central part of my life, and some performances have had a major impact, many in my teenage years, some a little later.  In offering a few examples, I hope these comments will serve another purpose, encouraging you to think about your own transformative musical experiences.

My parents loved classical music, especially my father.  Until I was nine years old, we didn’t have a television, nor go to the cinema, and my life was about study, board games and music.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  There wasn’t music blaring away all day long,   but by the time I was a teenager I had my own collection of records to play when I wanted.  My collection was classical, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky.  Other music, like Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, let alone Pink Floyd, The Who and The Doors, were still years away!  However, when I was around eleven years old, my parents took me to hear live music.  Once they had done that, the genie was out of the bottle.

Back then, London was paradise for a young boy.  I was able to travel from Ealing on the Underground (the ‘tube’), with a free travel pass and my parents apparently unconcerned about my fate.  Paradise existed from the early 1950s through to the 1960s; what a privilege to have experienced such a world.  I could travel to various museums in Kensington, galleries in Trafalgar Square and the Embankment, and I could go to plays and concerts.  I did.  I joined the evening ‘rush’ (free seats available in the half hour before the play began) to see Brian Rix farces.  I sat in the cheap Orchestra seats at the Royal Festival Hall, listening to performances:  in those seats you were behind the orchestra, looking at the conductor!

One concert remains especially clear.  I was watching the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra taking up their seats. Did I have a program?  Perhaps, or was this when we were  given a sheet with details of the programme and players?  The players finished tuning; the hall went quiet.  The orchestra stood up for the conductor.  He entered and sat down at the podium!  He’d walked slowly, so he must have been injured in some way.  Oh, and to my teenage eyes, he was old, really old, in fact he might have been even older than my dad!

I hadn’t known Otto Klemperer had injured a leg some years earlier, nor that he sat to conduct.  He certainly demonstrated a minimalist approach, small hand movements and gestures, but the dissonance between his gestures and the power of the piece was amazing.  In almost no time at all, I forgot about Klemperer, the orchestra and even the auditorium, swept up by extraordinary music, powerful, sometimes searching, often majestic, and unceasingly driving.  It was the first time I heard Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica.  It absorbed me, swallowed me up entirely into a towering structure of sound.  More than sixty years later, I still find it inescapably embracing, especially the Klemperer recording I have at home.

Why did it have that impact?  Later I read Beethoven had originally written it for Napoleon, and then torn up the dedication, but I didn’t know it at the time.  All I knew was this was about powerful emotions, quite outside the experience of an average middle-class English boy.  It was about triumph and uncertainty, about transcending obstacles, about exhaustion and determination, about death and glory.  What was more, almost sitting inside the orchestra, it was unrelenting.  There must have been some other pieces played that night, but what remains for me of that experience was feeling that I’d been transported.  In time I would fall in love with other works by Beethoven, the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, but the impact of Klemperer’s steady hand controlling the Eroica has never left me.  Sometime later I saw him conduct Handel’s Messiah, extracting the same sense of grandeur, and this time standing with the audience for the Hallelujah Chorus.

Those were my romantic years.  I am no longer exclusively addicted to major classical orchestral works, and I no longer need a fix from the Third or the Violin Concerto on a regular basis, although I still listen to both from time to time!  They have left me with a passion for the heroic.  Although my mother didn’t know it, she saved me from total obsession when she decided I should experience other kinds of music.  She couldn’t have chosen something further away from the classical greats.  She took me to Gilbert and Sullivan!  The D’Oyly Carte Company offered Gilbert and Sullivan light operas at Sadlers Wells.  I was entranced by The Mikado.  Then we went to The Yeoman of the Guard.

Boys don’t cry, but when Jack Point, a strolling jester, realised Elsie Maynard, a friend and strolling singer, loved someone else, I was distraught.  I cried, probably to my mother’s embarrassment.  Just ‘light opera’, but it was Jack Point’s song with Elsie that hit me:

POINT.                                      I have a song to sing, O!

ELSIE.                                                      Sing me your song, O!

POINT.                                      It is sung to the moon

                                                 By a love-lorn loon,

                   Who fled from the mocking throng, O!

                  It’s a song of a merryman, moping mum,

                  Whose soul was sad, and whose glance was glum,

                  Who sipped no sup, and who craved no crumb,

                   As he sighed for the love of a ladye.

                                                 Heighdy! heighdy!

                                                 Misery me – lackadaydee!

                  He sipped no sup, and he craved no crumb,

                   As he sighed for the love of a ladye!

ELSIE.                                       I have a song to sing, O!

POINT.                                                      What is your song, O!

ELSIE.                                       It is sung with the ring

                                                 Of the songs maids sing

                   Who love with a love life-long, O!

                  It’s the song of a merrymaid, peerly proud,

                  Who loved a lord, and who laughed aloud

                  At the moan of the merryman, moping mum,

                  Whose soul was sad, and whose glance was glum,

                  Who sipped no sup, and who craved no crumb,

                   As he sighed for the love of a ladye!

                                                 Heighdy! heighdy!

                                                 Misery me – lackadaydee!

                                                                He sipped no sup, etc.

I might have been 13 years old, my hormones surging, and I was wrecked.

Three years later, I was at the Royal Opera House, this time by myself.  The Covent Garden Opera Company was putting on Peter Grimes.  I had no idea what I was about to see and hear, I didn’t know who Benjamin Britten was, and I had never heard of Peter Pears.  I love many of Benjamin Britten’s works, but Peter Grimes sits at the centre.  Like most operas, the story is simple, set in a fishing village (a thinly disguised Aldeburgh, Britten’s home from 1947), and was first performed in 1945 (when he was living in nearby Snape).  Peter Grimes is a fisherman.  His young apprentice had died at sea, an accident for which the villagers believed he was responsible.  Despite resistance to his taking on another apprentice, he manages to do, helped by of a retired skipper and Ellen, the local schoolteacher, whom he was planning to marry once he’d earned enough money.  Falling from a cliff on his way to Grimes’ boat, the new apprentice dies.  The villagers form a vigilante mob.  Grimes is told he needs to disappear.  The opera ends as he sails away to die at sea.

It was first performed at the Royal Opera House in 1945, when Sadlers Wells reopened after the Second World War.  By the time I was at Sadlers Wells in the 1960s, it was a firm favourite, dramatic, dark and driven by powerful, tragic and unstoppable forces.  Peter Pears, Britten’s partner, was magnificent as Peter Grimes.  You knew, from the beginning, things were going to turn out disastrously.  Here is Peter Grimes about halfway through the opera:

In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home,

Warm in my heart and in a golden calm,

Where there’ll be no more fear, no more storm.

And she will soon forget her schoolhouse ways,

Forget the labour of those weary days,

Wrapped round in kindness like September haze.

The learned at their books have no more store

Of wisdom than we’d close behind our door

Compared to us the rich man would be poor.

I’ve seen in stars the life we might share:

Fruit in the garden, children by the shore,

A whitened doorstep, and a woman’s care.

But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown,

Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down.

I hear those voices that will not be drowned

Calling, there is no stone

In earth’s thickness to make a home

That you can build with and remain alone.

Yes, this was a tragedy.  Three hours later it was a very quiet journey back home to Ealing.

After falling in love with various kinds of music , everything changed in my twenties.  With young children, the music around me was the accompaniment to nursery rhymes and children’s television.  Beethoven’s Third lay to one side, although there were the Classical Kids recordings.  By the time I was thirty, I could repeat the whole of Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery or Mozart’s Magic Fantasy verbatim!  They had turned The Four Seasons and The Magic Flute into exciting stories and were surprisingly sustaining.  In the meantime, friends ensured I listened to The Doors, The Rolling Stones and more.

When I arrived in Australia, it was as if the music switch had been flipped back.  Adelaide’s biennial International Arts Festival brought classical music back into my life, never to be dislodged again.  There have been so many stunning performances I’ve attended since then.  Operas became a passion, with such highlights as The Victorian State Opera’s production of Don Giovanni in 1986; Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel at the Adelaide International Festival in 1988, or the 1990 Tristan and Isolde, also at the Festival.  At the same time, I was back into  attending theatre.    I saw Carrillo Gantner’s astonishing ‘Japanese’ version of King Lear in 1993, and Amadeus at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre in 1994.

Amadeus was clever, linking music and drama, but one play that had a massive impact was a production of Peter Weiss’s play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, performed by the South Australian Theatre Company, again as part of an Adelaide Festival, in 1990.  Like most people in the audience I had little idea as to what we were about to see.  The staging was simple, a semi-circle of performers, all dressed in white, the asylum inmates surrounding the performance space and acting as a chorus, creating a context for the ‘play within the play’.  The broader story takes place in  July 1808, as the Marquis de Sade directs a play.  That ‘inside’ play is set fifteen years earlier, during the French Revolution, with the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat in July 1793, using the inmates of the asylum as the actors.  As the Marat play progresses, the asylum’s nurses and supervisors occasionally step in to restore order while the patients jump in, often giving views about the Revolution.  All this was accompanied by occasional songs and music commenting on the themes of the play. It was electrifying, for the audience and for the performers.  As the cast took bows at the end, I remember one actor couldn’t get out of role.  Incidentally, Geoffrey Rush played Marat.

When I start thinking about performances that have affected me, the list keeps growing.  More and more concerts, operas and plays with music come to mind.  Among the first few that had a major impact on me Eroica introduced me to great music; unexpectedly Gilbert and Sullivan gave me my first perspective on the joys and agonies of love; Benjamin Britten spoke to the bewildering contradictions and complications of hope, hate and sorrow; and Peter Weiss addressed that minute and uncertain line between sanity and madness.

Living in Adelaide, I had started working with an older academic on a series of critiques of higher education.  Neil was a polymath, teaching philosophy, history and education, playing the double bassoon and learning Icelandic (among other languages).  He was quick to see that I was somewhat hung up on the classical romantic composers, and so began a gentle but firm education.  By the time he’d finished with me, I was listening to Shostakovich and Bach!  I added Glenn Gould’s first recording of the Goldberg Variations and Bach organ works to my collection of classical music and operas from The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni onwards

He also sowed the seeds of chamber music, and, as I have grown older, I have come to love string quartets.  Luckily my copy of the Borodin String Quarter playing Shostakovich is a on a CD and not an LP, because it wasn’t it would have worn out years ago.  The ‘sleeper’ was Neil’s gift of a set of cassettes comprising all the Beethoven String Quartets.  To begin with, I played them through once, and would occasionally listen to one or two.  Now, they are my firm favourites.  Among so many much-loved pieces, if there is one recording I return to more often than any other, especially at times when my emotions need a thorough working over, it is the Alan Berg Quartett’s recording of those string quartets, especially the last six, 12-16, and the Grosse Fugue, originally the final movement of the 13th.

I looked them up recently.  The Quartett (their spelling) was formed in 1970, and continued to perform until 2008, with two members present for the whole time, and one for all but two years:  it was his death in 2006 that saw them decide to retire.  Their recording of the sixteen Beethoven quartets in the early 1980s is generally regarded as outstanding:  the CDs have sold more than one million copies.  Unlike my reaction to the music, plays and operas mentioned earlier, there is no simple reaction to these pieces.  They have grown on me over time, especially the 14th and 15th quartets.  I listen to them often, and then try to school myself to leave them alone for a while.  I fail, and the usual sequence is to listen to the Shostakovich  7th and 8th Quarters, then the Beethoven 12-16, ending with the 14th and 15th a couple more times – just in case.  Just in case of what?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that they’ll be playing again soon, offering a window to emotions way beyond any prosaic understanding and yet, for me, totally addictive.  Thank you, Neil.