Monday, 8 August 2016

What Does this Music Tell Me?

Maybe it’s the poor restless kid...
I used to work for an organisation that went through a process of rebranding. It was amazing to hear what it meant to have new colours on publicity and how the font and the images would all be ‘on brand’ and this would make a difference to the market share! The brand would ‘cut through’. And everything we said in public needed to be on brand and our words and phrases needed to ‘cut through’ too! Cut through what though? I certainly wanted to cut through the marketing jargon! I never really understood what the branding experts meant by the phrase (maybe that’s why I left!) yet as I sit in the Royal Festival Hall listening to Mahler’s 3rd Symphony played by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Jakub Hrusa I begin to understand the meaning of to ‘cut through.’ Not because the music does, but for the exact opposite reason. It doesn’t cut through…

Maybe its because I’m in the cheap seats and they are quite a way back. Maybe it’s the poor restless kid who has been taken unwillingly to the performance and who disturbs the stifling silence. Maybe it’s the lack of a large PA rig and watt upon watt of power amplifying every instrument!

Actually, I don’t think it’s any of these things. The audience is working hard to create and sustain a chord of silence so the music has nothing to cut through other than my own prejudice. This was a very deliberate choice to come to a classical concert. I am not a big classical music fan and have been to one or two classic concerts before but I wanted to make sure that one of the 50 was classical. Why Mahler? Why his 3rd Symphony? In all honesty because I was free tonight and this is what is being played.  I am trying hard to be open minded and not prejudiced but during the first movement the music isn’t surrounding or engulfing me. I can’t feel it being driven through me, it appears to be happening somewhere in a bubble above the stage!

It is happening at the front of the auditorium without me... 
So much music nowadays is in the background. You have friends round - ‘sort the music will you?’ - and then you sit and talk over it. A long journey in the car – ‘you’re driving, you choose’ - and the volume is kept so low that you can still hear the Sat Nav. instructions over the road noise. In a pub it is somewhere above the laughter, and chatter. In a shop it is there as just another 2 for 1 offer. Surely a gig – or a concert – should be different. After all, the music is the reason we are all gathered and it needs to cut through whatever atmosphere is created. Whether that be the excited drunken frivolity of a festival crowd, the friendly banter across the tables at a jazz venue, the fingers in the ears of a dingy folk club or the studied silence of a classical audience. The problem tonight is that I am not part of this music – it is happening at the front of the auditorium without me.

I listen hard and carefully to the first movement and it leads me up so many cul-de-sacs. Just as I feel the music is building and I can tell that the themes are being explored and expanded, the music stalls to a halt and looks back to see where it missed the no through road sign! The 3-point turn achieved, it sets off again only to find another cul-de-sac! This is a long first movement and when it is over I am left with the same feeling I get after a journey that has been made longer through constant diversions; I have arrived and am thankful for that but I cannot say that I have appreciated or enjoyed the diversion.

Within the following 5 movements - part 2 of the symphony – there are some beautiful moments, but nothing grabs me. In his original ‘programme notes’ for this work Mahler gives each a title;

1.     Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In

2.     What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me

3.     What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me

4.     What Man Tells Me

5.     What the Angels Tell Me

6.     What Love Tells Me

Which poses the question what does this music tell me? If I’m honest it has failed to touch me or tell me anything; it has failed to cut through, and I am left unmoved. I can appreciate the skill of the orchestra, and some of the beauty of some of the piece, but I am not changed by the experience or moved by it. I am not lifted to a higher place. Life with all its tidal, emotional ebb and flow is not suddenly easier to face because I have been immersed, wave after wave, in beautiful heart-warming music. It has not communicated with my soul in the way music should.

Seventh heaven in the middle eight... 
The concert comes to an end and there are those who give a standing ovation. Have they been stirred and lifted above the mundane by this performance? Herein lies an interesting quandary. Have my 37 years of gig going nulled my senses and sensibilities to anything but modern music? Or do I need to learn a new way of listening so I can appreciate what I have just experienced? Or is it just in my DNA that I will not appreciate classical music in the same way as those standing during the applause? 

And perhaps this is the wonder of music – what I want isn’t to be found here, and likely as not, many of those on their feet at the end of tonight’s performance would be left as empty as I am by some or all of the other 49 gigs that have made up this year!  There is an argument to say a different composer, a different venue, a different orchestra would evoke something else for me. After all, I do not respond in the same way to all rock or folk gigs and perhaps I should not place all classical music in the same boat. 

Yes I have friends who listen to rock music and classical, folk and opera and part of me keeps thinking one day I’ll find the key that unlocks the secret world of classical music but until then I will seek delight in drums, bass and guitar. Rapture in the raucous, solace in the screaming solo, intoxication in the extended intro, seventh heaven in the middle eight, communion of chorus and verse and the uplifting of my soul as they all come together to make a greater, indescribable whole!

Concert: 47 of 50
Date of Gig: Thurs. 11th February 2016

Royal Festival Hall

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Jakub Hrusa 
Running total of artists seen 95

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