09 May 2012

Christopher's Holiday

The man on the aisle struggled to his feet to let me pass to get into my seat. He looked very elderly – well into his nineties. As he stood he slowly bent over and moved his wife's knees so that I wouldn't stand on her feet. She shot me a foul glare, her lips drawn back over her teeth. I recognised advanced Alzheimer's Disease. As I sat she moved her hands over her program incessantly, trying to separate the cover into pages. She did this all through the premier of John Adams City Noir with its jazz rhythms and inflections and chaotic climaxes. At one point her husband tried to take the program from her; he wrestled hard but failed. During interval he ate most of a block of hazelnut chocolate. He offered her his second-last piece but she showed no interest in it and the program origami continued. I wondered who their minder was and how they managed to get safely to their expensive seats in the stalls.

After interval it was Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. She stopped her paperwork and remained silent through the whole piece. Part way through he reached his right hand around to her left cheek and drew her face towards him and kissed her. The music washed over us; the brass-reinforced march that ends the third movement provoked serious applause even though the work was not over. When it did end - the Adagio lamentosa diminishes to pppp – the conductor held the orchestra and audience for a full 30 seconds before he dropped his hands (and the strings let their bows fall from their instruments) and the applause erupted in earnest.

The orchestra was the LA Philharmonic on tour to the east. The conductor was “The Dude”, Gustavo Dudamel, the 28 year-old who had grown up in Barquisimeto in Venezuela. Obviously he was a prodigious talent. Even I, for whom Tchaikovsky is not top of the list, was well and truly captured. The strings were like melted dark chocolate. It was the most magnificent string (and total orchestral) sound I'd ever heard. Jet powered, Christopher called it and I agreed: jet-powered dark chocolate. The Dude refused to take an individual bow. Instead he singled out instruments then stood in the orchestra as part of them while the audience gave him his rock-star reception.

The LA Phil in Chicago was fourth in a series of six concerts heard by a music-groupies tour led by Christopher Lawrence, a presenter on ABC FM. Twenty of us were on a sort of pub crawl (for "pub" read "orchestra") that had begun in Toronto a few days before.

In Toronto I'd heard the young Stefan Jackiw with the superlative Toronto Symphony play the Mozart violin concerto No. 3 then Elgar's first symphony. An international incident was only averted by immense self-control on my part. A couple four rows below me muttered all the way through the delicate lacework of the concerto. A couple immediately behind the visigoths decamped upwards to sit beside me to escape the noise. It turned out that the vandals had brought a picnic to a previous concert, one of the Casual Concert series and thought it was ok to do so this time. Jeans are one thing, salami sandwiches another.

So Toronto was memorable. What could top that? The magnificent L'Orchestre Symphonique De Montréal (French has priority in Montreal), that's what, with the photographable Kent Nagano. They gave a performance of The Creatures of Promethius in the form of a trial: text by Yann Martel for the prosecution, OSM for the defence. Promethius, in spite of the evidence stacked against him, went free and the orchestra, appropriately, played the Eroica. The next night in Montreal, it was Beethoven's First then Ninth - performances that left me (and most of us) gasping. Christopher, in response to those who weren't so sure, drew a distinction between the French style of Nagano with the OSM and the more familiar teutonic style of the Berlin Phil. The romantic in me leaned decidedly to the Gallic.

After breakfast each day  Christopher presented a background discussion about the music of the night's concert: it's origins, and significance. He'd been a student at The Conservatorium High School in Sydney before studying conducting. It showed in the depth of knowledge and critical analysis and understanding or orchestra sound production.

It was generally agreed that, in this orgy of high orchestral music making, the LA Phil in Chicago was the peak, that is until I heard the Chicago Phil in the beautiful, baroque Symphony Hall.

I was up in the Lower Balcony for the second of three concerts in Symphony Hall. I was stunned to see My Elderlies in the second front row which was accessible only to mountain goats. How on earth did they get down there without killing themselves? A young friend came to talk to them and they stood. They took some time to stand, but they managed. The friend left. Mr Elderly gently rubbed his wife's back as she sat. They heard three aggressively modern pieces, a suite derived from his film music, Redes, by Revueltas and the premier of a cello concerto by the Uzbek composer Yanov Yanovsky. The icy wind of the Steppes of Central Uzbekistan swept through its opening bars – and through my soul. Was it the composer or was it the soloist? Oh yes, it was Yo Yo Ma. In the riot of applause that followed composer, soloist and conductor hugged and kissed cheeks. How un-Australian!

But there was more. The orchestra settled down to play Shostakovitch's Sixth symphony. As the lights went down a late cellist wound his way into the back desk. And there Yo Yo Ma played cello and page-turner.

At the end, the standing ovation erupted instantly. Mr Elderly took off up the stairs, leaving Mrs Elderly to follow. Both of them were evidently a little more spritely than they appeared, but not much.

Out the front of the hall teenyboppers (age 15 to 35) had themselves photographed in front of The Dude's poster and Yo Yo's.

But the Fat Lady had not yet sung. Christopher had said quite a bit about "The Dude", and Yanov Yanovsky but little about the last concert, a Sunday afternoon recital by the young pianist Andreas Haefliger who played Mozart's piano sonatas K 300 and 301 including an Ala Turka Andantino that was brilliant but fluid – and technically faultless. His encore, which we worked hard to earn, was a Mozart adagio. There were no virtuoso pyrotechnics, just superb musicianship that extended and developed the Schubert sonata that had ended his recital.

There was one more surprise. After extended calls, standing ovations and exchanging assessments in the foyer I walked along Michigan Avenue. I turned left into W. Washington and there sat My Elderlies, fresh from the recital, waiting for their bus. Two evening concerts and an afternoon recital in three days. And a bus home.That's the sort of stamina I hope to have in my 90s.

I was a paying member of the Renaissance Tours “Orchestras of North America” tour.

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