Taking my daughter to Covent Garden to buy ballet shoes and other assorted paraphernalia to feed her obsession with dancing, we stopped off for coffee at one of the elegant French-style stalls which surround the piazza. As ever, the place was buzzing, and periodically you would hear a round of applause or a cheer break out as some magician, acrobat, dancer or musician pulled off some stunt which impressed the flock of people looking on to what must be London’s greatest free show of the arts. Forget pretentious Edinburgh and its horribly predictable Fringe, Covent Garden’s where the real class acts try out their stuff and attract attention.
As we paid up and left for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, one of the more static wonders of Covent Garden, the strains of Handel and the roar of the crowd drew us to the balcony overlooking the lower level courtyard where a string quartet was performing. In the true sense of the word, we were mesmerized.
This was a true class act which combined great music, great music making and great entertainment. They walked and danced as they played Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, et al., and the sight of the athletic cellist dancing as he played, the cello supported round his neck rather than stuck into the floor is one that will live with me for many a long year. They brought the music to life through their naturally free actions and boundless enthusiasm, they embraced the audience with their mobile playing, and they had children up and ready to dance along with them. And all of this without once compromising the musical quality or stooping to “accessibilize” the programme with little bits of rehashed pop and film scores.
Many classical musicians try too hard to shake off their perceived stuffy image in a frantic bid to make music accessible to those who find it irrelevant and boring. This group, far from playing down the boring image, played it up for all it was worth, hamming away and showing that while the stuffy image of string instruments, black and white attire, and 17th and 18th century music is part and parcel of what string quartets are, it can still be amusing and entertaining. These four players were not ashamed of what they played; rather they were so proud of it that they had no shame in pulling in the punters to Pachelbel and Telemann, and brightening up their Saturday morning in the process.
There is a lesson to be learnt here. Forget “Kids’ Konserts”, forget “John Williams’ Greatest Mangled Hits”, forget dressing as footballers, divers, cartoon characters or clowns. Celebrate the glory of music and music-making, and show that it is both serious and fun. That way, should your audience then go on and venture inside a concert hall, they will not immediately feel alienated. I often despair that all these dumbed-down concerts only ever attract audiences because of the side-shows, not because of the music. With this group putting music and music making of quality at the heart of their performance, they showed that you could still get people on side.
There’s another lesson to be learnt. I have no idea who this quartet was or where they came from. A young girl running around the crowd with a hat for the money also had some CDs for sale at £10 each. I bought one, and saw others do the same. But while I don’t begrudge giving the money to these excellent musicians, I do begrudge the waste of resources that went into making the travesty which is this utterly ghastly CD. It has gone straight into my waste-paper bin. The CD did not tell you a thing about who these musicians were – indeed the playing is so grotesque and out of tune on the CD that I suspect it’s nothing to do with the ones I heard. Horribly recorded with a weird electronic boom and oddly unbalanced sound which varies disturbingly between tracks, I don’t think I’ve ever put anything so hideous in my player before. The CD was a disgrace but the live performance was brilliant. I wish I knew who these people were!
So if you hear and see brilliant string quartets dancing around as they play, stay and watch; if a young girl heads your way bearing a box of CDs marked "Lotus Classics", give her the money and run.