Friday, 2 October 2009

Salonen the Golden, or, The Joy of Having Specialist Interests

I know the autumn has really begun when my Philharmonia subscription starts. Last night was the first concert I’d booked this year (I can’t afford to go to every one but I try to do six or eight in a season). It was a stunner. What with this and “Don Carlos” last week, my cultural life has restarted with a marvellous bang after the sluggish hiatus of summer.

I’m a big fan of the Philharmonia; partly for sentimental reasons – my father and my godmother both sang in the Philharmonia Chorus in their younger days – and partly because I happen to think they are a cracking good orchestra. Last night was a perfect case in point. Apart from being a breathtaking performance of three terrific pieces of music – two huge favourites of mine and something new that knocked my socks off – it was a concert marked by a rather unusual event, namely a power cut.

The band, as they say, played on.

They were only in total darkness for a few seconds, but prior to that the lights had spent about ten minutes flickering on-and-off, then dimming and brightening again, dropping to fifty-per-cent strength, and generally mucking about. Then suddenly boom! – pitch blackness. Right in the middle of “The Firebird”. After a moment, someone somewhere switched to a different lighting circuit, bringing on a very cold harsh light just on the stage and leaving the rest of us in Stygian gloom, instead of the normal soft warm ambience throughout the whole hall, and the concert finished under those conditions.

The orchestra were so unfazed one would have thought they rehearsed in darkness just for the discipline of it. I almost wonder if Esa-Pekka Salonen even noticed. I mean, he must have done; but on the other hand, he always gives the impression of being totally physically immersed in the music to the last fibre of every muscle, all of his energy swept into this one wondrous goal. Watching him on the rostrum is like watching someone dancing in a very confined space.

I’m a big fan of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Everything I’ve ever heard him conduct has come out as if new-minted; revelation after revelation. It’s thrilling. I don’t know enough about music from a technical point of view to know what it is he is doing, but he hits the spot for me. He just has the golden touch; he seems to be able to bring to everything he does that combination of perfect lucidity - so that the whole piece is explicated with absolute clarity and I sit there thinking “Of course, how wonderful; that’s how it’s put together and that’s how it works!” - with an equal and heartfelt measure of passionate feeling. That capacity to explore both structure and emotion, the interlayered play between tensioned forces, is one of my biggest delights. So many great performing artists are either great technicians or great stage animals, but not both at once. Those who are both are my big heroes.

I know, I know - it isn’t just him; there’s a big group of people down there, all of them highly skilled and at the top of their game, working with him. It’s just that the conductor is easiest to single out, for obvious reasons. To work as a united force is a significant part of being an orchestra; the conductor is the unifying factor, the wire through which all their multifarious energies are fused (not a good metaphor, excuse me). The musicians all come on quietly, and take their seats quietly, and quietly they tune up – that lovely stage when one is sitting in blissful anticipation – then suddenly this slender man with beautiful hands and hair the colour of manuka honey springs onto the rostrum, looking like a slightly wild hobbit in a suit, and everything just takes off.

Sorry, bad attack of the purple prose there. I have a bit of a crush, you will gather; if the man weren’t a) happily married and b) several inches shorter than me, it would be a huge crush, but these two useful limiting factors keep it to manageable proportions – small bureau rather than double wardrobe, size-wise.

I’m attracted to genius; and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway: They played “Sinfonietta”, with half the brass section up in the choir stalls to make the fanfares really ring out. I adore Janacek (why can I never find the right diacritical marks for Czech words? Grr…), and in particular I adore “Sinfonietta”. The end, when the fanfares and timps return, everything melding together like a triumphant yet yearning heaven, pulverises me, and this time I just gave up on being a True Brit, and sat and cried. It was wonderful. Then they played a new piece by Magnus Lindberg. I’m not familiar with his work and had come hoping not to be depressed by half an hour of atonal screeching; I was in luck, it was dramatic and lyrical and full of lovely open spaces – I think he was using a lot of very deep and very high sounds layered around the clear place between – I don’t know how to describe it, or indeed exactly what I am trying to describe – but it was one of those pieces of contemporary music that make one want to cheer and stand on the seat. And the text was lovely – Latin graffiti from the streets of Pompeii, everything from crude abuse through cries of “I love so-and-so!” and lists of market days to scribbles of incorrectly-remembered Virgil.

Then the whole of “Firebird”; absolutely gripping, dazzling, revelatory. The genius of Stravinsky, so complex, so subtle, simple and yet showy, brilliantly precise yet full of huge wallopping showstopping moments.

And with this wonderful example of group sang-froid when the lights went out, at one of the stillest and most delicate points in the score, the evening was altogether an absolute joy.

Yep, classical music may be a specialist interest, but I love it. Here’s to a good autumn. Next week I am going to “Wozzeck”; gulp. My Favourite Baritone is singing Wozzeck, and E-P S is conducting, so although I may need to take a few deep breaths, if I can cope with being harrowed halfway to hell and back it should be an impressive evening.

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