Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Haute culture

One day in April last year, Andrew came home from work with a surprise: tickets to a piano concert featuring the first performance in 15 years by a pianist who rose to prominence as a child prodigy but had to stop performing because he developed Tourette's Syndrome. He spent the intervening years hiding out in a huge house in the middle of nowhere, playing Bach in darkened rooms, but vowed he would some day return to the stage. And he did, last April. His name is Nick Van Bloss. We saw him perform with the English Chamber Orchestra. The program included:
  • Bach: Keyboard Concerto in G minor
  • Beethoven: Symphony No.8 in F
  • Handel: Water Music Suite
  • Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 'Emperor'
The concert was in Cadogan Hall, a beautiful concert hall in Chelsea. We had seats in the front row, so we could see every grimace on the faces of the musicians and every graceful stroke of their bows. We could even see the pianist's hands shaking as he waited for the conductor. It was an emotional performance; I was actually brought to tears by the end. The Bach concerto was the most impressive, technically. It was hard to believe he could play that many notes so quickly, even though I could see his hands. It was like magic. The real skill, though, was in making sense of the chaos. Bach's music is always very well ordered, but in the hands of a mediocre player it could sound like too many layers competing with each other. Van Bloss was able to pick out individual threads of the music and highlight them against the background of the rest. He was also able to draw out the emotion of the music within the steady, relentless tempo. A lot of classical music is transparently emotional with the help of exaggerated tempo changes to indicate mood, but Bach tends to move along at one pace for longer stretches of time, so any mood changes have to be coaxed out. I could be wrong about that, but that's the way I think about it. His music is more restricted in some ways, but that restriction can offer its own sort of freedom, just as a sonnet allows the poet to use its rule-bound structure to support an infinite variety of meanings.

Handel's Water Music, performed by the chamber orchestra without the piano, made me smile all over. When I was little, the only CD I remember my parents having was a classical sampler that included two pieces from the Water Music. I used to listen to the CD when I was reading, and the Water Music will, until my dying day, call up memories of reading the Horse and his Boy, hearing the hunting horns of the book echoed in the music.

The final piece, the Beethoven concerto, was the highlight of the concert for me. Whereas the pianist was able to tease the emotion out of even Bach's ordered measures, he seemed to revel in the exuberant mood swings of Beethoven. I loved the way the piano and the orchestra worked with each other, too. The orchestra seemed to rush upwards as the piano came in, leaving the piano buoyed up and able to soar above during the solo sections.

When the music ended, everyone jumped to their feet in the most natural standing ovation I've ever been a part of. Everyone in the hall was smiling and clapping and nodding their heads; we all felt like we had witnessed something very special. I hope Nick Van Bloss is back for many more concerts; he is incredibly talented. I feel very lucky to have seen him play on this occasion.

Two days later, we went to another performance, this time the London premiere of a new production of Waiting for Godot, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. I remember reading Waiting for Godot in tenth grade, and I liked it at the time, but that was partly just because I knew I was supposed to like it. I did get some of the humor, I think, but it was hard to follow, and I'm not sure how much I really got out of it. Seeing it performed, however, brought entirely new levels of meaning. The performance was fantastic. It was really cool to see and hear Gandalf and Professor Xavier, of course; I won't deny the allure of their celebrity status. But I only saw them as Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart when they first appeared. After a few minutes, they were Vladimir and Estragon only. I have never seen performances that were so seamless. They inhabited the characters fully but wore them lightly. I never felt like I was watching someone acting; I was just seeing a story played out in front of me. It was very natural. All of that was even more impressive considering how abstruse the content is. They made it seem believable, all the absurdity and redundancy. They even made it beautiful. It was the best play I've ever seen.


robert & tiffany said...

Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart ?!@#!??

laiabird said...

Sound fantastic, both events!