21 January 2016

Unlocking Mendelssohn

Last night I attended a concert.  Nothing noteworthy about that; indeed, it would be more unusual for me to write that I had NOT attended a concert.

The difference was that I attended this concert not for professional reasons, nor yet because of a sense of duty. None of the performers was familiar to me as a friend, student, colleague or musician, and there was nothing in the programme which particularly enticed me.  I did not go because somebody had asked me or because I was going to be in someone else’s company, and, in truth, being an amateur, student concert, it was the sort of thing I might usually have avoided, especially as it came at the end of a long work day and I was quite keen to go home.  The fact was, though, that having spent my day up to my eyes in music and music-making of considerable professional intensity, I just thought it would be the best way to unwind.  At home I have no television, which would be my customary method of relaxing after a hard day, and my useless internet provider (a company called MyRepublic which I urge all Singaporeans to avoid like the plague) does not offer me sufficient bandwidth (despite their claims to the contrary) to listen to radio online (forget any notion of watching any video content).  A concert of uninspiring trifles played by amateurs seemed the nearest thing I could think of for mindless entertainment.  There was a chance I could just sit down and let the sounds wash harmlessly over me.

Performances were notable for the dedication the student players had put into them, and if the end results ranged from the amusingly bad to the earnestly careful, that was not to belittle the obvious sense of achievement each player showed as they left the stage.  The amateurishness of the event was heightened not only by a programme booklet, which was so full of basic errors as to be a source of great mirth, and a Master (or rather Mistress) of Ceremonies who performed an utterly pointless role.  Why is it that amateur concert promoters in south-east Asia feel the need to call on the services of an MC?  Invariably the MC knows nothing about the event, reads a script with no understanding of the words it contains nor any ability to pronounce them, wholly misunderstands the purpose of the function and generally obstructs the proceedings to the extent that it seems to run on interminably.  Last night’s MC seemed there purely to show off a pretty spectacular blue dress, but with crass phrases like “Let us put our hands together for the players” (replace an L with and R in that sentence, and you have what was always told to us children in church) she had obviously read the Bluffers Guide to Saying Stupid Things In Public.  Fortunately the packed audience of students and friends were far more clued-up than the presence of an MC implied, and they ignored most of her entreaties and listened to the music with rapt attention, supporting the performances with genuine applause. 

It impressed me how much hard work had obviously gone into preparing the performances, and the clear level of concentration every one of the student performers showed and their obvious satisfaction in having achieved their objective of performing on stage to the best of their ability more than amply compensated for the many and obvious musical shortcomings in the performances.  Amateur music making is not about high-level technical delivery or intuitive interpretations, but about effort, determination and commitment, and these all succeeded magnificently, even if I did have a good (private) laugh at some of the more blatant errors.  It all served to make me profoundly glad that I had gone and to regret the fact that I had approached it in a slightly negative frame of mind.

The highlight of the evening was when a group of eight string players did the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet.  It got a deservedly warm round of applause and some genuine cheers  from the audience who, it has to be said, behaved impeccably throughout (as opposed to the ushers who decided that walking around and loudly telling people off for taking photographs during the performance was more important than allowing the rest of us to enjoy the music).  There was a wonderful look of triumph on the faces of the players when they reached the final cadence – as well there should have been.  They did really well.

The thing is, no performance of the Mendelssohn Octet can ever leave me unwound or relaxed.  It stirs something deep inside me which churns my stomach and makes me restless.  On the bus going home after the concert I fidgeted and hummed to myself, much to the irritation of the young lady seated beside me who appeared to be attempting to text the entire contents of the Old Testament in the space of a 20-minute bus ride.  And despite a hefty whisky (or two) back home, any hope of relaxing had gone.  I spent a restless night going over the Mendelssohn time and time again in my head. 

I would never suggest it was one of my favourite pieces, yet I love it in a very deep and intimate way.  And I suppose that love comes from the fact that it is one of a handful of pieces which has, in the past, unlocked internal musical doors for me.  Mendelssohn’s music was among the first I got to know.  As a piano student I played many of his simple piano pieces and his Songs Without Words, while as a young organist I had his Sixth Organ Sonata firmly embedded in my repertory (not to mention the Wedding March and the War March of the Priests ). Yet somehow Mendelssohn was just another composer, pleasant and harmless, occasionally predictable and worthy, but never inspiring, and when I first performed Elijah as a tenor in the university choir, I enjoyed the experience but never really felt affinity with the musical idiom.

But that changed dramatically one Saturday morning when, listening to the Record Review on BBC Radio 3, I heard the reviewer recommend the Nash Ensemble recording of the Mendelssohn Octet.  So persuasive was the reviewer (surely it wasn’t Lionel Salter, but I hear his voice in my inner ear uttering the words) that I went out and bought that record.  On one hearing I was transfixed.  This was the key to understanding Mendelssohn for me.  I listened to it over and over again, and from that moment onwards in every piece of Mendelssohn I came across, I saw a new and inspiring light.  Every composer has his distinct voice, and sometimes you need a work to act as the trigger to unlock your access to that voice.  For me, it was the Octet which opened my ears to Mendelssohn.

It has happened with a few other composers.  Hindemith came alive for me only after hearing the Mathis der Maler Symphony, and for Franck it was the Violin Sonata which opened my ears to what he genuinely had to say.  Other composers – Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Rachmaninov, Messiaen – I locked on to straight away, while for others – Chopin. Liszt, Verdi – I have yet to find that key; and there’s a lot of fun in looking for it.


But the message I take away from this is that, for each individual listener, true access to a composer is often to be found only in one work which, for some inexplicable reason, triggers a reaction deep in their psyche.  We should never say we “don’t like” a composer’s music; instead we should suggest that we have yet to find the work which unlocks that composer for us.  We can’t really dismiss a composer’s music until we have heard everything he has to say.

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