Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Fragile! [or Handel with care...]

Spare a thought for the box office staff and the organisers of the International Piano Series at the South Bank Centre as the news breaks this morning that Krystian Zimerman has cancelled his Royal Festival Hall recital tomorrow. This wasn't unexpected. Krystian is rather prone to lung infections and pneumonia and had to cancel an entire US tour last month; now apparently he's had a relapse.

When I was 15, the non-appearance of Krystian (then my hero, today, by fabulous chance, transformed into a truly exceptional friend and colleague) was enough to send me into the darkest of depressions for several weeks. Even now, it's a source of sorry disappointment. We all need something to look forward to through the daily grind, and a recital by a favourite musician is almost the equivalent, for concert-goers, of a longed-for summer holiday.

People make a huge investment in concert-going. We buy tickets way in advance. We plan evenings with friends, think about where to eat beforehand, how to get there (for Tom and me, this often involves standing on Mortlake station for ages waiting for trains that get cancelled at the last minute) and turning down every other possibility for that evening. I'm missing the London Philharmonic gala tomorrow night because nothing, not even my husband's orchestra with the wonderful 'Vladi' Jurowski conducting in the exquisite Guildhall with a swanky fundraising dinner afterwards to which I was invited as journalist, could keep me away from hearing Krystian playing the Chopin B flat minor sonata. Tant pis. I shall probably go to see the new Harry Potter movie instead.

The problem is the psychology of musical admiration, and it is not with our heroes but ourselves. It seems to us that musicians of Krystian's calibre have a superhuman ability, something godlike, something that lifts them out of the general mass of humanity onto another level - something that proves that humans can exist on that level, that we are not just consuming animals, that we can be something greater than the sum of our physical parts. By following in their angelic wake, we can pull our own level up a few notches. That's why we put them on pedestals.

Trouble is, in the end they're not angels; they are only human too. Sometimes they come tumbling off those pedestals and we're the ones who feel bruised when that happens. There's nothing worse than disillusionment with someone whose ability you've worshipped, rightly or wrongly. (I'm not referring to Krystian here, by the way, as he's the one person I've never been disillusioned with! He's just got bad lungs.) Maybe we expect too much of our artists, our exemplars, our role models. Or maybe we don't expect enough of ourselves? We turn them into gurus and expect their example to sort out our lives for us. It never works. In the end we can't sort out our lives by escaping into music or dreaming of a better existence in Planet Concert. We have to roll up our sleeves, plunge into the mud and do it ourselves.

How's that for a little profundity on a wet Tuesday morning?