Back Desk Solos

Leaving the lovers of Verona and arriving in Berlin only one hour later is a shock. The ancient stones of Italy and the marble walls of the amphitheatre seem a long way away as we arrive at the hotel which was once in East Berlin. If Verona lays claim to the human tragedy of lovers separated by warring families except in death, the very heart of Berlin itself is still scarred by separation that once wrenched families apart. The wall itself is no longer there except for a few sections which, ironically, are now protected, but the path it took is marked by a double row of bricks. In many ways, seeing this meandering line which veers off apparently at random at times, seems to emphasize its arbitrary nature as it cuts through parks, roads and then disappears when it meets one of the many new buildings filling what was once the death strip. As I veer off the walls path to visit the Jewish memorial, built on former wasteland near the Brandenburg Gate, the atmosphere changes. Over 2000 blocks of concrete which resemble tombs and commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Europe are regularly placed over a huge area; from a distance they look stark and cold, but what you can’t see until you are drawn between the stones is the drop in floor level.

The Berlin Jewish Memorial

From the roadside, the softly undulating park forces you to come in and explore, and when you do, the ground drops away, the maze of columns get higher and  more oppressive and suddenly it is cold and silent, dark blocks towering over you, enclosing you. Until you find your way out, you are dwarfed by the immense stones. For such a simple idea using simple materials, it is a moving experience wandering alone and a chilling reminder of recent history; it isn’t long before I follow one of the avenues out and up into the sun.

We are in Berlin for the festival and the repertoire is certainly challenging, ranging from the complex textures of Ives New England pieces right up to the catatonic movement of  the Feldman piano concerto. MTT is passionate about this repertoire and takes great care to impress upon us the importance of the music. Ives of course is well known and an important figure in American music history, I’m sure there aren’t many insurance salesmen who could claim to be groundbreaking composers in their spare time. So important is he that when plans to demolish his house in Connecticut became public recently, the outcry was such, with the inevitable Facebook protests, that the house was saved. Impressive stuff for a man who’s music still needs to be explained to audiences years after its composition. Back to him later.

Whenever I do pre-concert talks and the like, the question that is most often asked of me is:

Who is your favourite conductor?
Answer -they all have unique qualities and I couldn’t possibly choose a one size fits all maestro – (this is true)

Who is your least favourite conductor?
Answer – They are all fantastic and I love them all (This isn’t true)

Who is your favourite composer?
Answer – Depends on who we are playing this week (True)

However, nobody has ever asked me who my least favourite composer is! I always think this is odd as it tacitly implies that I enjoy every single piece of music I play. I have to tell you that I don’t and I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I don’t like the Feldman piano concerto. I shall explain this by saying that maybe I just don’t understand it which will keep everyone happy, but it is unrealistic to expect any musician to enjoy every piece they play. Do you enjoy every aspect of your job? Honestly? No, I didn’t think so.

MTT certainly sells the piece, in his introduction (in German) he does a hilarious impression of Feldman’s thick Brooklyn accent where he (Feldman) describes his music as ‘merchandise’. He describes the sparse textures as perfumed memories, a beautiful phrase which certainly applies to the, usually, one chord every few bars type texture. Feldman was heavily influenced by some of the American artists of his time; for me, Mark Rothko seems to have been perhaps the greatest influence. If you’ve seen Rothko’s canvasses in the Tate Modern for instance, those dark slabs of colour which seem to shift and change in the room are almost the painting equivalent of Feldman’s concerto – in my humble opinion anyway. But at least I am consistent as I don’t really like or ‘get’ Rothko either, so maybe it is natural that I should have trouble appreciating Feldman too. Maybe. I cannot deny that the way Manny Ax places the chords and voices them is a thing of great beauty, and the way the tones shift between sections of the band creating a tonal flux is quite eerily gorgeous and when the orchestral piano of John Alley echoes the solo part from across the stage, the effect is other worldly… and yet… It goes on and on and on. For 25 minutes, nothing much happens and then… it stops.

However, the audience in the Philharmonie last night loved it and at one point we thought Manny was going to have to play 4’33” as an encore. But then of course, the other week an audience member told me they didn’t like Beethoven and my wife isn’t a Mozart fan – it takes all sorts. The thing is, when I visit a gallery, I like stuff and I don’t like stuff. The stuff I like, I stay awhile and look at, the stuff I don’t, I look and move on – it’s the nature of an art gallery. So, I can walk into a Rothko room, look and try to understand and then move on if I don’t like it. With the Feldman, I have to sit until it has ended whether I like it or not. You may disagree and I should add that not all of my colleagues agree with me as I found out over dinner, and this is not the official opinion of the LSO etc etc etc, but for me, sitting through the piece is more like watching a Rothko dry. But that is, I can’t stress this enough, just my opinion and I performed it with as much care as anything else.

One of the more exciting pages of the concerto

Rothko

To say there is a lot going on in a Charles Ives piece is an understatement. The old hymns collide with brass bands on Decoration Day, a mad flutist chirps away oblivious to the choir in the background and just when it couldn’t get any madder another couple of bands start playing along in a different tempo. The effect is supposed to sound like walking across the square where Ives lived and moving through the different soundscapes as the competing bands vie for your attention. There are times when it feels like that is exactly what is happening, so much so that for one of the pieces we have two conductors. Sitting at MTT’s feet is Lee our librarian and conductor. He sits very still indeed or about 20 minutes until at the appropriate moment, he suddenly conjures up a baton and begins to conduct some of the orchestra in a completely different time zone to the rest. The effect is bizarre and unsettling, both aurally and visually particularly as after a minute the two halves of the band are supposed to line up again, however, for a few glorious minutes of madness, the orchestra is split right down the middle, East and West before a glorious reunification near the end. As both the conductors slash away fighting to be heard, it looks for all the world like they are having a sword fight, or this being the LSO I guess, a lightsaber duel for supremacy.

I am your father…

Eventually Lee’s job is done and he hides his baton again and sits quietly as if nothing has happened.

My favourite part however is the soloists. In my chair, solos come and go, but sitting somewhere in the middle of a massive string section doesn’t often find you singled out for solo duties… unless you’re playing Charles Ives. In one of the pieces, solos are played by players right at the back of the section. This gives the effect of a distant player, perhaps a viola player practicing some tricky passage (no jokes please), or a few miserable 2nd violins doggedly continuing the slow, whining passage when everyone else has moved on. Bindi stands proudly at the back of the orchestra playing the violin. It looks like she was late for the concert, ran on and only made it as far as the clarinet section before the music started. She joins in, but unfortunately is playing the wrong piece, but continues confidently anyway, oblivious to the chaos following. It is hilarious. But star of the night has to be Claire on the very back desk of the 1st violins, right next to the audience. Just as everyone else in the orchestra is finally playing together, ethereal sounds float out from the front desks of the strings… but what’s that noise? Claire puts her head down and begins to play a sort of Irish/Scottish/Appalachian jig type thing. It’s very nice but doesn’t fit with anything else whatsoever and she just doesn’t stop but keeps going on and on like she’s having her own private party. She looked like she was having more fun than anyone else and certainly the audience were smiling away. Looks like Ives got there before Mr Bean.

As the orchestra finally played with one conductor, together for an encore from Young Persons Guide the audience roared their approval of a challenging show. When the flowers came on for MTT though, there was never any question where he was going to take them and to enormous cheers, he presented them to Claire who raised them aloft like a hard won trophy and then proceeded to share them out to the rest of the violin section. Manny Ax isn’t the only generous soloist on this tour.

Next stop….Vienna

About LSO

The London Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's top orchestras. Our home is at the Barbican Centre in the City of London where we play over 80 concerts every year, but we also spend quite a bit of time out on the road, touring all over the world. Recently we have toured to Germany, France, Russia, New York, Japan, Holland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Lithuania; and coming up this year are China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Spain, Portugal, Florida, Romania and a return visit to New York, where we are resident at the Lincoln Center.
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3 Responses to Back Desk Solos

  1. Terrifically interesting blog post, Gareth. Really enjoyed reading this. All best! – Ken

  2. eyoki says:

    I’ve always wondered how musicians at the LSO’s level cope with music they really don’t like. Must be hard in this age where professionals not only have to be competent and conscientious but also perpetually ‘excited’ and ‘delighted’ about every project.

    Never heard the Feldman piece but I love Rithko so maybe I should check it out.

  3. Mandy says:

    Love the honesty, Gareth.
    I do love following this blog – almost a look behind the scenes of a great orchestra and even during the scenes, as it were!

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