This has been a good week; passably good weather, a party, a concert, a behind-the-scenes tour, a chance to meet a hero of mine, then the ballet tonight and another party on Sunday. And most of my French beans have come through, and my tomato plants are thriving and growing daily.
I do love getting behind-the-scenes. Yesterday, after the dress rehearsal for their evening’s concert (& it was fascinating to discover how detailed and rigourous this was), I and four other middle-aged Friends of the Philharmonia got a backstage tour of the Royal Festival Hall. Good grief, what a labyrinth. It’s as bad as the Herbarium here at Kew.
Dozens of passages and dressing rooms and storage areas are packed together, folded round the great central box of the auditorium in an amazing piece of architectural origami. The nice Friends’ co-ordinator showing us around admitted she still gets lost sometimes – and later proved it by losing the way out. We also got a chat with one of the stage managers, the chance to go on the stage (sorry if this sounds incredibly starry-eyed, but this was a huge thrill for me), and best of all we got to meet Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Who turns out to be a very sweet, rather shy guy who needed a shave, and who couldn’t have been nicer, friendlier, or more interesting. I was, as I’d feared, completely tongue-tied at first; two of the men in the party rather monopolised things, though, giving me time to go through the process of saying inwardly “be still, my beating heart” over and over, until I was fine and could participate rationally in the conversation, even under the gaze of those brilliant slate-blue eyes.
Oh, yes, I have a crush. Horsesh*t yes. I already had, but this has reinforced it. What a lovely bloke. Oh horsesh*t yes…
Well, as I’ve said before, I’m attracted to genius, and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Married genius, in this case, so quite safe from any tendencies to embarrassing behaviour on my part.
Oddly, he turns out to be a lot taller in person than he looks on stage. I had thought (no offence meant) that the Maestro was a bit of a short-arse, but he’s about my height; at most, maybe half an inch shorter.
The evening’s concert was, as usual with my favourite orchestra, terrific. An interesting programming zeugma gave us Brahms, the ultra-classical purist, paired with Berlioz, most passionate of the early romantics. Both were played beautifully. Sergey Khatchatryan was a tremendous soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto. I wish my father could have heard him; he would have been purring, figuratively speaking. In the second half, Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” was as huge and dramatic and intense as it should be, and, again as it should be, a tad bonkers.
Chatting earlier about the programme, the Maestro had remarked that Brahms “would have had a fit” at finding his work played together with Berlioz. “He would have hated every note,” he said, and then went on to remark that in the early nineteenth century there used to be fist-fights in the streets between the supporters of Brahms and of Bruckner; comparing this to today, when only football seems to arouse such violent emotion, he said rather sadly that he felt it suggested classical music was now tangential to the dialectic.
It’s an interesting point; the sort of question I’d love to corner him in the pub with. Is it that classical music is now tangential, or is it that the social structures that inform that dialectic are so different now as to render direct comparison meaningless?
After all, in the nineteenth century it was completely normal for people to want to “better themselves” – a concept so loaded now with socio-political baggage that I feel unable to use it without inverted commas. The interests, activities and passions of the educated classes were once things to aspire to, whereas today the aspiration is to become yet more intensely involved with the latest pop culture, yet more post-modern in one’s outlook. The bourgeois today aspires to be (or at least to seem) less like a bourgeois, rather than more so.
To my mind the whole things is deeply tied-up with the ingrained dirt that is the British class system. But then, how does that work in other countries? How widespread is that class system? I’ve always been taught to see it as a specifically British thing, but it must have equivalents in other countries and other cultures...
And how specifically British, I wonder, is the other factor I think may be contributing to this situation – namely contemporary culture’s profound alarm in the face of sincerity? The post-modern world view is fundamentally flip. Since everything is held to be of equal value, nothing can be genuinely serious or genuinely sincere; hence anything that is is viewed as suspect, even dangerous. And classical music, even at its lightest and most upbeat, is fundamentally serious - and most of it, absolutely sincere as well. But a cultural discourse which maintains that nothing can be authentic, that everything is relative and contingent and nothing can be understood unless seen in this way, pours out mockery and bile when confronted by sincerity. It reflects, to my thinking, a deep, deep insecurity. Contemporary cultural discourse is as terrified of the real as a mediaeval atheist would secretly have been terrified of divine retribution. And as a result, as one of the characters in “Sunday in the Park with George” says, “It seems to be more and more about less and less”.
Oof, heavy stuff, Dent. Going back to the pleasure of meeting the Maestro, seeing the orchestra rehearse, visiting the Green Room and so on, I have to say it gave me one other thrill. It is so easy, watching performers of any kind doing their thing with grace and brilliance - beautifully costumed, distant, glowing under the stage lights - to fall into a childish admiration, and see them almost as demigods. Yesterday I saw the Philharmonia in street clothes, with shopping bags and cups of coffee at their feet. I heard them push themselves hard, even make mistakes, working for hours to achieve something better and finer than the last time. It all suddenly became much more about the collaborative effort of a great body of individuals, rather than some shining final product. And that is a precious extra dimension to bring to my experience of their performances.