Image: Huw Morgan
It’s easy to forget how profound the impact of live music can be.
‘Live music’ now there’s a troublesome phrase. What counts as ‘live’? There’s something shared, something decidedly active about live music. It’s a more-or-less unique experience. I suppose for a musical experience to count as ‘live’ we expect some degree of performance rather than simply playback. But how often have DJs got away with playing pre-recorded sets? How often have pro instrumentalists played like automatons going through the motions? Perhaps the distinction isn’t so clear cut.
Three weeks ago I took-up a new job and relocated to London. Suddenly I was surrounded by a much healthier lifestyle and countless opportunities to hear live music. Oh, and boxes. Lots and lots of boxes. I’m in no doubt that the sudden influx of music directly contributed to my healthier state (despite increased alcohol intake and vastly reduced air quality).
As it happens, my new job is at the Royal College of Music. I’m surrounded by music all week, even if it is tuba scales a lot of the time (*parp*). One of the benefits of working in a conservatoire is having a steady flow of events on tap. A perfect remedy for the melancholia that’s plagued me for months, perhaps even years. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been to a few such events in recent weeks. I’ve also had the chance to catch-up with old friends and see some of their performances too.
Last week I spent one of my lunchtimes listening to some of the RCM’s prizewinning students. The concert featured guitarist Haydn Bateman and the Prince Consort Trombone Quartet. Both were good, but Bateman in particular was an absolute thrill to hear in concert. The young guitarist is already making waves it seems. I’m not surprised. I’ve not heard such impressive guitar playing for a long time. Bateman’s sense of tone and his voicing were impeccable. But, technique aside, his performance glowed with astonishing musicality. Sensibly, the repertoire served up the kind of relaxed atmosphere you want at lunch time. In those places where things got more flashy, I found myself underwhelmed. I suspect this was more to do with the music than with Bateman. Spacious passages gave his technique and musicality room to breathe, which was an absolute joy to experience. Watching him navigate acrobatic finger-work was just less interesting. Elsewhere, his touch, his use of different string tones, his sense of tempo and his superb dynamic control were deployed with amazing maturity. This is a man to watch in future.
Later in the week I attended a rush hour concert of orchestral music. Beethoven’s Second Symphony was on the menu. All quite run-of-the-mill for London. This, though, was the culmination of a three day residency by members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, who worked intensively with some of the College’s orchestral performers. Now, I’ve been a fan of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe ever since I encountered their recordings of Beethoven symphonies with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Two of the COE mentors – violinist Mats Zetterqvist and flautist Clara Andrada de la Calle – took seats in the orchestra for the conductorless performance. Zetterqvist led with a commanding, playful and encouraging presence. de la Calle darted around Beethoven’s score with flawless ease. The students, rising to the challenge of preparing a concert from scratch on very little time, had clearly learned a lot from their three-day experience. The unmistakable joie de vivre and the well informed performance style of the COE were evident in abundance, but so too was the personality of the student orchestra. This was a true coming together of forces in a joyous expression of music making. I’ve never had the chance to see the full COE live in concert, so I can’t make I direct comparison on that front. However, without a shadow of a doubt, it was the finest orchestral performance of Beethoven I’ve ever witnessed live… possibly the finest orchestral performance of anything I’ve ever heard live. It wasn’t flawless, but that just made the whole experience better. Everyone in that room was sharing in something very special, something ostensibly hinged around Beethoven, but more widely a vibrant celebration of what it means to make music. I left the concert with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I would have given my right arm to have been of one of the student performers (if losing my right arm didn’t also prevent me from playing!).
On Saturday afternoon I managed to catch the premiere of Lauren Redhead‘s new work Ijereja – an experimental ‘digital’ opera. As some of you will know, I’ve a close relationship with Lauren’s work anyway, and with the Automatronic series which hosted Saturday’s performance. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the amazing experience that unfolded. Lauren’s score relied heavily on open notation and so on performer decision-making. This was ensemble music, with Lauren at the organ (and supplying vocals), Alistair Zaldua and Adam Linson on live electronics, Tina Krekels on saxophone and Charles Céleste Hutchins on tuba. Lauren’s programme note made mention of the ‘strategies’ needed to navigate the notation. Those strategies translated perfectly into sound and musical form, which both unfolded with a naturally evolving sense of logic and, at the same time, an endless cascade of surprises. The performance was testament to the skill of the musicians involved. While stylistically very separate, I got precisely the same feeling from the Ijereja ensemble as I did from hearing the RCM and COE orchestra play Beethoven without a conductor. Minds and sounds worked as one, with the sole purpose of creating the best possible experience for each other and for everyone else in the room. Both events were an exaltation of music’s power to move us, to enrich our lives and to invoke feelings of wonder in a way that no other experience can achieve. The Beethoven I already knew well (along with the performance style), so I left that concert with a sense of jubilant affirmation and of thrilling rediscovery. Lauren’s Ijereja was new to me and the environment of its premiere more subdued. I could think of no other word to describe the experience than ‘spiritual’, which isn’t a word I throw around lightly.
Music has tremendous powers. I’m glad live music-making has reappeared so strongly in my life.