Monday, April 29, 2019

5 lessons from three busy days

Whatever we do, we can learn something. In any situation, principles can be extrapolated that are valuable for the future. I've had three Very Busy Days during which I learned certain things I'd love to share with you. On Friday I was adjudicating a Schumann piano competition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire. On Saturday Viv, Fenella and I performed the Odette concert at St Mary's Perivale, and yesterday I went to Market Harborough to do a pre-concert talk about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time for the Harborough Concerts series. Here are my life lessons about music that resulted.

1. About music competitions. Whether you are trying to compare five different instruments and five different musicians playing pieces from across several centuries, or three pianists playing one composer on the same instrument, someone is always going to say "apples and oranges" and they are right. You are never comparing like with like - unless, of course, everyone plays exactly the same piece, and even then you're not comparing like with like because different players will have different strengths and weaknesses. One is not always, or only, "better" than another. In many ways, the idea of competition is therefore completely impossible to apply to music. But we have competitions and they are a useful way for young musicians to train up for the pressures that attend a musical career. Therefore, perhaps the best thing we can do is try to see them as handy experience for the competitors and a chance for the audience to hear gifted youngsters on the up - rather than a be-all and end-all Olympian contest.

2. About concert venues. Most concert-halls-in-chief are too big and lack atmosphere. It's possible that the single nicest way to experience music is to be up close and personal (though with just enough distance not to be deafened). There is a great deal to be said for an intimate venue with a special atmosphere of its own, packed with local fans and friends, able to give everyone a sociable cuppa or glass of something after the performance and make a really personal and social occasion out of a performance. You only need a massive hall for big orchestral and choral works. For smaller-scale music, something the size of the Wigmore or Kings Place is perfect; and you may find that your local church or historical property with music festival associations is replete with possibility.

3. About technology. The Odette concert was live streamed and afterwards I saw social media posts from people who'd tuned in from Sweden and Italy. I'm finding it as hard to get my head around this capability as I did the first time I set eyes on a miraculous invention called the Fax Machine in 1988. What? You can send documents around the world on a phone line? This has now become 40 years ago only the BBC could broadcast a filmed concert live. Now a 12th-century church behind the A40 can do it at the touch of a few buttons! 

If anyone in Brexit Britain really believes in turning the clock back to 1973, this is just one example of why that little notion is never going to work in 1m years. Because now we can do livestreaming, and you can't switch this all off again just because you want to live in 1973. The rest of the world won't stop to let us indulge that silly fantasy. Twenty-first-century technology is here to stay. This is not 1973; it's 2019. Get real and get over it before it's too late.

4. Of course you don't need to "know about music" in order to enjoy it, but sometimes it helps if you do know something, depending on what the music is. Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time may be a case in point. Yesterday I gave a 20-minute introduction to it, explaining the extraordinary background and circumstances of its composition, and talking through the meanings and some of the workings of each movement. This series, presented in the Market Harborough Methodist Church, has a devoted audience - violinist and artistic director David Le Page and the Harborough Collective have built up a strong following that seems to trust them implicitly and will come along to hear anything they do, which is an ideal in itself and utterly wonderful - so there was a strong turnout for a complex piece by Messiaen on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Afterwards I lost count of the people who came up to say that the talk had made a big difference to their appreciation of the music because now they could contextualise it and knew something of what was going on and why. (The next concert in the series includes Shostakovich, Mahler and Schnittke.)

5. Apropos of this, it now occurs to me that most of us who regularly declare that you don't need to know anything about music in order to enjoy it - and I often have in the past - actually can't be sure this is true, because we usually do know something about it, however little, and we can't know what it is like really to know nothing, because we cannot unlearn what we've learned. This might make us pause and reflect for a moment. My experiences this weekend [and it applies to the Odette concert too, because it's full of stuff about Tchaikovsky and why he wrote so many violin solos in Swan Lake] suggest that audiences like to feel informed and maybe to learn something along the way. [See also: massive success of The Rest is Noise, Southbank Centre 2013.] I'm still convinced that you don't need to know anything about some kinds of music to enjoy it. But is it perhaps possible that if you do become informed, you might enjoy it even more? Unpopular opinion, I know - but give it a whirl.