04 February 2020

Dazzling Duo, Selfish Spectators

One of the great delights of my work as a Professional Listener (a job description which seems far more apt than mere Music Critic) is that every concert comes as a surprise.  This weekend, for example, I eagerly anticipated the debut concert of a new professional string quartet (see previous post), only to be disappointed by the amateurishness of their playing.  Against that, a violin and piano duo recital yesterday afternoon seemed so unenticing to me that I almost did not go; I stood outside the hall wavering whether to sit in for a bit or go out and do the shopping.  Luckily I plumped for the former, and found myself attending about the most outstanding duo recital I can remember attending for many a long year.  Certainly such excellent duo playing is rare in Singapore, and even when household names appear, they hardly ever reveal the supreme level of true partnership on show in yesterday’s recital.
The Avita Duo’s visit to Singapore got minimal publicity and virtually no exposure; even the main door to the hall was barred, with admission gained through a side entrance, well-hidden from public view.  So when I did eventually find myself among the select group who had made it to sit on the concert hall stage (rightly, nobody anticipated a sufficiently large turnout to justify opening the main auditorium seating) I really was not expecting much.

The best musical collaborations are those which have a personal chemistry and relationship honed over years of working together (which was the big failing with Saturday’s string quartet). Here we had a mother and daughter duo, thereby adding to the shared experience of music-making that innate unity of consciousness which only the closest personal relationships can create.  There were a few occasions when violinist Katya Moeller made a dubious sound or hit a note slightly off-balance, which prompted such a spirited flash of the eyes from her mother, Ksenia Nosikova at the piano, that you wondered whether Katya would later get a smack and be sent to bed without supper!  But this was no junior/senior partnership, but one of absolute musical equals who worked so closely with each other that as often as not they seemed to meld into one.

The perfection of their duo partnership, as well as the brilliance of their individual playing, was driven home at the very start with a robust and invigorating account of Beethoven’s 1st Violin Sonata.  From start to finish this was absorbing, enlivening and exciting stuff, full of drama and joy and keeping us all on the edge of our seats.  I’m not sure the Hubay Carmen Fantasy really worked so well since it projected daughter above mother in a way which felt a little unnatural.  Dazzling violin playing in this extraordinarily eccentric take on Bizet’s famous tunes, but perhaps it needed a level of virtuoso individuality which does not come naturally in such a partnership.  Perfect for the pair were the Lera Auerbach Preludes.  Inhabiting a distinctly post-Shostakovich world, these superbly written miniatures worked so well in this performance because the duo were so totally attuned to the music and each other that there was no sense of feeling their way into each small musical sensation.  And, ending as they began with a core violin/piano duo work, we had Franck’s Violin Sonata.

On average over the last five years, I have heard the Franck Sonata performed live in whole or in part six times annually in Singapore.  There have been impressive and outstanding performances as well as ignoble and near-disastrous ones, but this swept the floor with them all.  There was something indefinably Russian about the Avita Duo’s interpretation; whether it was the amazing poise of the first movement, the sense of tight-lipped restraint in the second, the pathos of the third or the wonderful expansiveness of the fourth, I can’t tell, but something here gave it a very different feel.  It was a powerful and gloriously committed performance which, like all great performances, will ring in my memory for days yet to come.  Luckily I was sitting near an exit which meant that. when the pair decided without prompting from the audience to launch into an encore, I was able to get away quick before any cheap bit of showmanship could pollute the lingering aftereffects of the Franck.  Why do so many performers think we want an encore to take away the taste of their performance?  Whatever happened to the mantra, Less is Best?

As for the audience, unsurprisingly it numbered no more than 30.  Of these, about five or six were students most of whom spent the concert texting on their phones - no surprise there; I know of no other people on earth less interested in listening to live music than Singapore music students. 

Equally predictably, but much more disturbing, was the posse of general public dotted around the seats who, periodically, took out their mobile phones, held them aloft and, despite entreaties from pre-concert announcements, proceeded to record the concert.  What the hell do these idiots think they are doing?  Do they seriously believe that the tiny little speakers on their ghastly hand-held devices produce a better sound than the live acoustics of a concert hall?  Do they really find it easier to look at a minuscule screen than take in with the naked eye the totality of the concert experience going on around them?  Indeed, do they ever look at these recordings again, or do they merely believe that the act of recording a live concert simply legitimises it?  If you didn’t record it on your phone, it never took place in reality!  Perhaps, these people are so monumentally selfish and inconsiderate, that holding aloft their phones for such extended periods of time is in fact a deliberate attempt to obscure the view of those around them and disturb their enjoyment of the concert.

The first concert hall to place a bin (preferably an incinerator) at the door into which all patrons are obliged to deposit their mobile phones and tablets, will get my unfailing custom for the rest of my life.  Concert-going has become a dreadful experience simply because of the selfishness of these morons who feel that they have the right to disturb everyone else in order to record some part of the presentation for their own private gratification.

And here was a concert which really deserved not to be spoiled in this way.  Such wonderful music making is still very rare in Singapore and it was a privilege to be there; take it from me, it can never sound so good through the eyes and ears of your electronic, hand-held device..

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