Saturday was a day I shall remember for a very long time. When strange things connect, when music does what it was meant to do, when people from all parts of life reach new heights and new meanings come together and you realise that over the years melodies converge: we all need each other more than ever.
Even today it's hard to know where to begin, but here it is - from the flame of a single candle in Wells Cathedral to the tsunami of energy and light that is Mahler's Symphony No.2 at its best.
|Inside Wells Cathedral|
I was in Wells for its Festival of Literature. Having arrived the night before (and massive thanks to the festival and its representatives for such a warm and hospitable welcome!), I started the day with a visit to the cathedral, which I had virtually to myself. It's an awe-inspiring place, with proportions, geometry and grace that are exceptional even among its magnificent peers in York, Salisbury, Lincoln et al. It was silent, rapt, atmospheric. I lit a candle. I have not ever been much into religion, prayer or belief, but the state of things at present has strange effects: perhaps a little focus, some valiant intent, some deeply held hope can make a difference. On a more mundane plane, at the market afterwards, I availed myself of a big shiny spider brooch à la Lady Hale. One unintended consequence of The Brexs**t Show is that I've developed a whole new admiration for lawyers.
My assignment in the festival was to be interviewer to Jane Glover about her book Handel in London. It's a beautiful and fascinating volume (I reviewed it for the Sunday Times when it came out last year) and brings 18th-century London to vivid life. Some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion, though, were about the man himself: who was Handel? How do you get, well, a handle on him? Few letters exist; some famous anecdotes may be apocryphal; some may have been misinterpreted. Jane is convinced that when he threatened to throw Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window it was simply a joke to defuse a dangerous prima donna situation. The key, she suggests, is in the music and perhaps can be found most keenly in L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato - which ends with a quiet contemplation at the fireside. Perhaps at the end of a long day, he liked to go home, shut the door and gaze quietly into the flames.
|Jurowski rehearsing Mahler with the LPO|
Meanwhile in London, the flames were metaphorical as more than a million people took to the streets to surround parliament and shout against Brexit. Wells is in Somerset, a good hike from London via Bath, and I didn't get back until about 5pm, so annoyingly missed the midday march and most of the action - but the atmosphere upon arrival was uplifting nonetheless. To see the number of blue-and-yellow berets and flags and placards and smiling protestors brought the feeling that one could breathe, that the clouds had lifted and that all hope has not yet been crushed. I've been gorging on the reports and videos. Who knows if it will make a difference; if it does not, dark times lie ahead; once that slippery slope begins, its end point cannot be predicted. Some of my musician friends, acting as canaries in the UK coal mine, departed several years ago for more open-minded shores and have scarcely been seen since. I can't blame them. More will doubtless follow.
A discussion yesterday found a family member describing Brexit as a "category error", which is why it can never work: you are trying to impose one narrative onto a framework that is not designed for it and cannot hold it. Oddly enough, this is how too many opera productions seem to be at present; comedies handled with the weight of a Mahlerian mallet (Orpheus in the Underworld), or by all accounts a blingy and ludicrous staging of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, which is emphatically not a comedy. I wonder if this is symptomatic.
At the South Bank, I slunk into Tom's rehearsal for the Mahler 'Resurrection' Symphony. There in the choir seats was Dame Sarah Connolly, singing the mezzo solos. She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, but spent the afternoon on the march singing choruses from Carmen, Beethoven 9 and (I hope) "Bollocks to Brexit" with a group from the Royal Opera, then came to rehearsal and performance singing with a dignity and eloquence that had to be heard to be believed.
The concert was one in a million, or would have been were it not the third in close succession conducted by Vladimir Jurowski that was on this level and left me lost for words. All of life was here: the darkness and the dread, the elegant and ironic grace, the sardonic yowls, the deep, rapt spirit of nature, the blinding blaze of redemption.
|The LPO, Jurowski and Sarah Connolly in rehearsal|
Recently I interviewed the artist Mat Collishaw - one of the Young British Artist generation, who's working on a fascinating musical project. He made an impact on me by stating something that should perhaps be obvious, but is not: namely, that without darkness, beauty loses its meaning. He tries to bring both into his artwork, which is often, or usually, an extraordinary mix of beauty and horror. (Explore his works here.)
Occasionally someone says something that changes how you experience art, or even life. My best example was Boulez, who said in our interview that you can't just stand in front of something you can see is wrong and do nothing. This is the next mind-bender. Both statements seem no-brainers when you think back over them later, which must be why they have such an effect: because do we truly think about such things? Do we articulate them to ourselves clearly enough? Can we understand them and assimilate their principles if we don't? Here's a moment when everything comes into focus, when you know there is a lesson that is meant for you, now, right here. You sense the idea crawl on the back of your neck, burrow into your innards: you need this message.
"Gravity and grace," said Mat. And listening to Vladimir's Mahler, how right his words seemed. I've grumbled in the past about Mahler performances that lacked adequate darkness. Here was one that said "You want it darker?" and went there - all the better to rise to the heavens at the end. And my God, it was overwhelming. The playing was taut, furious, unified, exultant; Sarah Connolly and Sofia Fomina as soloists; the LPO Choir and London Youth Choir giving everything. The audience was on its feet within seconds of the final chord, yelling. Backstage, conversation was difficult because everybody's breath had been so totally removed that nobody could find the right words. Many were in tears, some of the orchestra included. And Marina Mahler, the composer's granddaughter, was there.
|After the Mahler|
The orchestra's journey to the stratospheres has been remarkable to experience; perhaps, faced with the imminent departure of Vladimir to Munich in 2021, they've now realised what they currently have on the podium. But this Mahler, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique the other week and, in between, the Strauss Alpine Symphony have been a trilogy the like of which we see and hear all too rarely in the grand scheme of things. (The question arises: if more music-making held this degree of excellence and meaning, would we appreciate it so much...? hmm.)
Vladimir's journey, too, has been a saga of building, experimenting, exploring, deepening, widening and now flowering on uppermost branches. As for Sarah: my heart is in pieces over her indomitable stance, her dignity and determination and the way she channels the lot into her singing. Jane remarked in out talk in Wells that Handel would have adored a singer such as Sarah Connolly. Seconded. I know too many people who are suffering from this appalling illness at present (its latest victim is the wonderful journalist Deborah Orr) - a terrifying scourge on women, often of our age group. Please send all your energy, your healing, your hope and your determination to Sarah as she embarks on a new journey, through chemotherapy.
At this level, music becomes a matter of life and death; nothing is ever "just a piece of music", but now we know how and why not. And that's what music is for. Without its role as ultimate catharsis, reaching the heart directly, beyond words, beyond sight, beyond intellect, it loses its power. Without darkness there is no light.
Update, 22 Oct: I am mightily embarrassed to realise that originally I didn't mention the other piece in the programme: Colin Matthews, 'Metamorphosis' from Renewal. It's a glistening, intense setting of Ovid, burrowing into the text's exploration of the world in a constant state of flux. It was performed at the start of the concert and led straight into the Mahler. Even if it was the latter that produced the sensation of Total Overwhelm, it was the Ovid that I later copied out into my "commonplace book" and that actually encapsulates much of my feeling about the symbolic lessons of this evening as articulated above.
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