Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Super… – but nothing superfluous…

There have been so many of these nights: sat in front of a blank, glaring screen, struggling for words; wondering what will jog them into existence… – yet another peek at the scores; a further glance at the programme; a memory… of a phrase, a note, a gesture, a smile; a glass of wine, beer, or brandy… – a single malt…? Maybe even one of my semi-habitual strolls in the well-past-midnight air…? It’s not – as my poor loyal reader will know… – that I am short of them. The problem is nudging the ones I do have into some semblance of the right order: so that you see what I saw; heard what I heard; felt what I felt… and therefore understood what it was to be me: immersed in magic – once again – for a couple of hours, within the “wooden O” of Stratford ArtsHouse. I need your cheeks to burn with my tears; that sudden gasp to fill your lungs; your palms to sting from my nigh-endless applause; your throat to rasp from that involuntary “bravo”….

Of course, the temptation, many times – but not now; never now… – has simply been to shout – albeit using the limited medium of pixels… – how adverbally wonderful my evening was; throw in a couple of mild adjectival profanities, perhaps; and convey the evening’s greatness in the time-honoured tradition… before retiring to the warmed snugness of cotton and goose-down. But that would be to renege on my responsibility to every single one of those many I witnessed… – those doing great, ineffable, incredible, intangible things… – to surrender my duty of recording for posterity (whilst sat on mine) instead to the eventual whispers of those hallowed, now-dark, now-peaceful, resting timber walls.

But we will be ghosts when those secrets are willingly given up – dissipated by the four winds, to the four corners of the earth: flowing as the audience’s reports do in time and space… – our atoms (should we beat the cruel humour of mischievous chance) only then co-mingling with the waves of stardust that were brought into being, this entrancing night. And those time-stretched echoes will only faintly hint at their miraculous birth. They will no longer detail the how; explain the why. Only – only – that it was. That it was astonishing. Your greed to know; your willingness to listen to those susurrations – rustling like long-shattered autumn leaves… – would never, could never, be repaid.

So it is down – maybe up – to me: to take you back there… praying that enough of the enchantment that then girdled me has clung to the grooves, the pores of my very skin (as well as permanently meshed with my still-tingling synapses): and thus will creep out of my fingertips, essentially unbidden, on to the clacking keys, slowly filling the screen… but quickly – I hope – firing your imagination.

It was glaring at the programme notes, in the end: my eyes and mind finally beginning to focus…

…all three of this concert’s works [are] linked by their orchestration – the addition of oboes and horns to the Orchestra of the Swan’s core strings reinforcing our happy band’s quintessential translucent, intimate chamber feel…

…previous words thus locating me in a previous chair: wide-eyed, wet-cheeked, and slack-jawed; astonished only because I had expected to be astonished… just not quite this much. (There is obviously, therefore, no limit to the supply of astonishment. However much I witness… – and, of course I am intensely grateful… – there is always more to be delivered and consumed. Especially by these forces; and by their willing admirers.)

Some of this amazement is, I think, an indicator of the lofty heights at which the Orchestra of the Swan continue to soar (somewhere way, way above Mount Olympus). Initially, because – despite two previous reviews from me of flawless performances of Mozart’s 29th symphony, David had spent over thirty minutes at the beginning of the afternoon’s rehearsal finessing not only its ‘flow’, but a largish handful of particular, exquisite moments. Admittedly, the orchestra’s make-up was slightly different – with only twelve string players (surely the ideal number for this diaphanous work of creative genius); plus a brace each of those woodwind and brass… – but the balance (from where I was sat, at the back of the hall) was consummate from the first note.

Secondly: no matter how many times I see and hear them in action, they never cease to astonish me with their precision; and their responsiveness… – both to each other, and, of course, to David’s communicative smiles, nods, gestures, and trust. Not only that, of course: but, in performance, all those tiny, disparate details then gel to produce something, yes, utterly magical; and utterly fresh – almost spontaneous – in its affecting delivery; and, it appears, on this evidence, will do no matter how many times I experience it.

Somehow, the dynamics were crisper; their contrasts both more defined, and yet more subtle. The trademark translucency of texture was yet more lightly woven. The pauses, more natural…. I could go on. Just two highlights will have to suffice. One: a rising bass-line early in the first movement, and similar quavers in its closing bars. We all too often concentrate on the exposed soloists at the top of the score – a soaring flute; a piercing trumpet – but easily forget that any orchestra can only be as good as its foundations. And, tonight – and I am really sorry I did not catch the player’s name… – this was a marvellously perceptive, and obviously heartfelt (and way more than technically able) performance from the lone double-bass. She was – and I fear that, although astonishment may be infinite, my supply of the following word will quickly run dry… – perfect. Perfect to hear; perfect to watch; a perfect fit. And therefore – and for many more musical reasons – my orchestral player of the night. (It is another measure of OOTS, by the way, that Nick Stringfellow and Chris Allan, the two cellists, ensured that she was both welcomed into the family fold so readily; and then invited to move physically closer to them, so that they could play as a completely unified section.)

The other example is a little more difficult to pin down – but it happened in the Haydn symphony, after the interval, too: so I am certain I did not imagine it. As the jaunty Menuetto transitioned into its central Trio, somehow, more ‘space’ emerged. Not so much a slowing of tempo, or a loss of momentum: just that – even after an Andante which never feared to explore the limits of delicacy: extremely successfully and beautifully… – for a few bars, the levels of emotion soared; my heart was split open; and I experienced the most momentous tranquillity. And, during those few bars, I did not draw breath….

This was, somehow, a new feeling: not one generated by live music before – and certainly not in the middle of a supposed dance! It did, however, cause the final Allegro con spirito to glow with contrasted ecstasy: fireworks of explosive joy lobbed continuously into the musical stratosphere – quelled only by matching applause!

So, even with a work as justifiably popular as this one, I am sure its delivery will never wane. And no-one should, therefore, ever dare accuse David and the players of either resting on their hard-won laurels; or of simply churning out repeat – albeit top-notch – musical renderings. Every single OOTS performance begins – and every single time – with the building blocks of printed notes, dynamics and tempi; then the pencilled additions and emphases… – but ends gushing forth from that extraordinary well wherein each performer’s experiences; their beaming enjoyment of their work; their now-invisible skill (honed through thousands of hours of oft-lonely practice…) lie, enmeshed, waiting to be released by their generosity of spirit and openness of mind.

This “generosity” and “openness”, of course, swathes those who work with the orchestra, too. Other staff; volunteers; the audience; and, of course, the soloists. Last night, we were treated (a word which only conveys a fraction of one percent of the experience…) to another visit from this year’s Associate Artist, Laura van der Heijden.

If I’m having trouble communicating just how “astonishing” OOTS are, then I do not even know how to begin to define or describe just how intensely special Laura is. It is as if she has been given a key that only she could possess: one which unlocks the voice of the instrument she cradles. That it produces such wonders, her actions, her reactions imply, is actually all down to the instrument. It is simply a matter of chance that she is the only one who knows and understands its secrets.

I also cannot compare her to anyone – because she is unlike anyone (certainly any musician) I have ever encountered. She is that rare wonderment: a true individual who is (or at least appears) sure of her own mind and abilities. They are what they are; and – to be exceedingly blunt – we are lucky to be on the same planet, never mind in the same room.

However, she is also incredibly ‘normal’ (however you wish to define that) – as are all great people, of course. From their perspective, they are just people. It is our perspective, our worship – and, of course, our “astonishment” – which anoints them with specialness. How they react to that is, perhaps, their true measure.

Anyway… tonight’s disarming weapon of choice was Haydn’s D major cello concerto: an intensely beautiful, lyrical work on the surface; an intensely technical and challenging one, below. Not that you could tell. (It’s not that she makes it look easy – it’s that she doesn’t make it look difficult. There is no look-at-me showmanship. Every single movement is dedicated to the production of music: filtered through the prism of her individuality – her mind, body and soul.)

The concerto demands the intimacy that the Mozart had established. Thus, David’s – and Laura’s – choice to sit her, as collegiate member, rather than isolated soloist, between conductor and leader, not only demonstrated that quality’s fulfilment (and to perfection); but paid dividends. This really is music that draws you in – willingly – especially as performed here… – it is true chamber music: with gossamer texture and pellucidity. And, thus, for the concerto’s duration (at least), the ArtsHouse continued to shrink around us, to envelop us. We were an audience of close friends, immersed in the world of our close musical peers, witnessing another – even greater – continuous sequence of miracles.

Laura’s playing is so fluid, so communicative, so vocal, that Haydn’s ravishing melodies – even when highly ornamented, as they are here; so utterly complex on the page… – float into the air: bathing you in a plangent joy. (I have no other words.) The frequent double-stopping, and flights from deep, earthy growls to pure, seraphic sonority, were expressed as naturally as breathing. Effort is visible only under close scrutiny – Laura’s ever-present thoughtful demeanour immersed in that glorious sound; engrossed in her hawk-eyed observance of David; and embedded in this miraculous instrument she embraces. And yet she and the orchestra are equals, without doubt.

During her first-movement cadenza – her own composition: perfectly demonstrating her unassailable technique; her stunning emotional connection with the space around her; her innate deep insight and joy… and perfectly harmonizing with the music that had gone before, as well as building the perfect bridge to the orchestra’s joyous conclusion – the world stopped on its axis. I believe that, if it could have – or had I the power to cause it to… – it would have reversed a little… just to hear this awe-inspiring and soul-penetrating exhibition of unalloyed stupefaction again.

But there was no need: despite its inherent “simplicity”, her (and the orchestra’s) transcendental ‘singing’ in the Adagio provoked enough tears for a lifetime. Tears of joy; tears of ocean-deep sadness; tears of disbelief… – her command so assured, but so very well hidden beneath her desire to communicate (and with this instrument that is now an integral part of her being) what this music means to her – so that it means this to you, too; that you experience and understand implicitly what every single note signifies.

Now, I was alone: an audience of one. Nothing visible but a blurred divinity; nothing audible but heaven. And, oh, the cadenza, here. An astonishing, strummed, extended moment of pure transcendence….

The tempo for the Rondo was perfectly judged. No rush through those immense scales. Just joy, and extended delight, in some of the most radiant music for cello and orchestra ever composed. We know it is such, because that is how Laura and OOTS perform it. Those deep, angry ascents, stopped thirds and octaves may furrow her brow momentarily: but the centre around all which this revolves is happiness – a satisfaction with the world as it is, in this small space, now… – and there is no better. Please, please never stop….

After the interval… – no, sorry, I really daren’t even attempt to write more about the concerto… – Grandad David asked some impossible questions; proved why he is the greatest Artistic Director the universe has ever known; sprinkled the orchestra with trust and fairy dust; and delivered… – yes, even after all that prior perfection… – a performance of Haydn’s utterly addictive ‘Mercury’ symphony with as much joy as it is possible for seventeen people to muster (with just another huge lump thrown in for luck)!

This was intimacy of a different kind. And I could rabbit on for hours about the cunning parallels that OOTS painted with the Mozart; how the Adagio – “a miniature chamber masterpiece” – opened the Bardic spigots again; how the universe expanded during the “more considered – and beautiful – Trio section”; how the last movement brought the house down. Twice.

That last word deserves an explanation, at least. Which is that there is a coda – of sorts – tacked on to the last movement: which, in rehearsal, David (incited by cellist Chris) proposed the orchestra (and some supposedly-gullible onlooker – that is, Yours Truly – even receiving an individual downbeat of the directorial baton…) should pretend did not exist: the preceding bars being delivered so emphatically as to raise an explosion of approbation from the audience… – whilst, of course, the orchestra carried on as if nothing of the sort had taken place.

And, of course, Papa Haydn’s false-ending joke worked wonders. And we all left the hall with one big smile spread all over our faces. Mine, though, masked an aching soul, and a hole in my heart you could drive a cello through. Don’t get me wrong: this is as happy as anyone can be. It will just take me an awfully long time to recover from such… from such perfection. And, of course, astonishment.

The perfect gentle opening of the Mozart makes the perfect gentle opening for a concert; and the answer to one of those “impossible questions” is that this is what ‘it’ looks like… – a thrilled group of people leaving a full house, heading into the freshening autumnal air; an orchestra plastered with glee; a soloist to match; music that breaks and mends hearts and minds; a glass of red wine; and a reviewer who knows he hasn’t a chance in heck of capturing and corralling the right words. (Of course, none of it would have happened without the swan….)

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