(Sick) day off

Having decided I needed a day without work (and having bought the tickets a couple of months ago) I went to London yesterday in pursuit of more music.

At lunchtime I saw the Netherlands-based chamber group Musica ad Rhenum at the Cadogan Hall. This was an altogether happier experience than my last visit, where every time Stephen Kovacevich made any kind of noise at all there was an offputting buzzing sound that reverberated around the auditorium. This time I was bang in the middle of my row, four rows from the front, and sitting next to a floral-smelling man with lustrous jet-black nasal hair, altogether ideal conditions for any concert. I’d like to name the players individually: Jed Wentz (flute), Igor Rukhadze (violin), Job ter Haar (cello) and Michael Borgstede (harpsichord). They played music by Bach and two of his sons, and gave a gorgeous encore from Telemann’s Paris Quartet no. 6. Rarely if ever have I seen four musicians so attuned to each other, or making such a glorious sound. In my salad days I was fortunate to be an undergraduate at a college possessing a superb David Rubio copy of a 1733 Blanchet double-manual harpsichord, and sometimes had occasion to book baroque flute recitals. I suppose they helped me to acquire not only a taste for some of the repertoire, but also a respect for baroque flautists. It looks an enormously difficult skill and one which requires great stamina, and so my admiration for Jed Wentz is boundless. I left the concert actively feeling happy to be alive, which I suppose is a testament to the effect the whole thing had on me.

Later in the afternoon, as I crossed one of the Thames footbridges, I had a fabulous music-meshing experience. ‘Sick Day’ (and if you don’t have Spotify this is the best reason I can currently think of for getting it) by Fountains of Wayne was playing on my iPod, and the man playing the steel drums on the bridge was either in the same key or at one remove, i.e. in the dominant or subdominant. It was like a euphonious version of Ives’ father’s marching bands, and reminded me of why I used to love composing so much in my teens. It may be something to return to in the future.

Jackie Onassis running; photograph by Ron Galella

Then to Tate Modern, which I hadn’t visited for a few years, to see their Exposed exhibition. The pictures and videos exhibited are, often tenuously (and sometimes not at all), linked by their subjects having been supposedly either unaware of or not complicit in their having been taken. I was most interested in the photographs in the first few rooms, mainly of early American photojournalism by people like Lewis Hine (have a look at the results of a Google image search of his name for a taste). There were some striking films too, including Nan Goldin’s video slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and a series of photographs where the line between mere observation and immorality is blurred – of people dying or committing suicide, for instance, which prompt questions about why the photographer was capturing the moment rather than doing something more useful. Amid the celebrated images like Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phuc, one would occasionally come across an unfamiliar picture of a lynching, say, to make the blood run cold. Perhaps predictably, but effectively, there were a number of CCTV cameras in the exhibition rooms, monitoring and broadcasting us. An unsettling experience, but a moving and thought-provoking one.

The evening’s Prom featured the superb European Union Youth Orchestra conducted by Matthias Bamert, stepping in for the indisposed Colin Davis. Bamert was a very fine replacement, as one would have expected, and justly lauded by the audience and musicians for taking on the master’s mantle, but it was a shame not to hear Davis conducting Berlioz. The coughers of London were out in force. I have never before heard so much communal phlegm dislodgement. Happily Bamert put them in their place by cutting them off with the furious opening of the final ‘Orgie de Brigands’, but it was a shame he couldn’t have done it earlier. There was one moment of absolute magic in the first half, the bit about a minute into Janáček’s Taras Bulba where the full orchestra (replete with bells) crescendoes and suddenly cuts out leaving the organ alone. The hall was absolutely hushed, and a shiver ran down my spine.

Oblique Berlioz

I thought the Berlioz was the highlight, which was only fitting. I don’t like (I suppose I should say get) Berlioz as a rule, and I’m hardly alone. “Berlioz composes by splashing his pen over the manuscript and leaving the issue to chance” (Chopin); “Berlioz is a regular freak, without a vestige of talent” (Mendelssohn); “What a good thing it isn’t music” (Rossini, on the Symphonie Fantastique) – but, God help me, I can’t help loving his Harold in Italy. I don’t think this was the perfect interpretation the EUYO might have given under Davis, but just hearing it live, which I hadn’t done until now, was a thrilling experience. Violist Maxim Rysanov gave a livewire performance, threatening periodically to tip over into madness (which is probably appropriate for Berlioz), and perhaps a little more funambulism from the orchestral players would have lifted things into the realm of the transcendent, but I can’t deny the exhilaration of the whole thing. Every time I hear the piece I wonder if there’s something about Berlioz that I’ve missed, and every time I go looking for it in his other music I fail to find it. Perhaps it’s time to dive into Les Troyens. With Colin Davis, of course.


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