Whenever I sit beside a stranger, on an aeroplane or in a theatre or concert hall, I make a point of engaging in conversation, if only for a moment. At the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Friday evening, the cloakrooms were closed. Short staffed, they said at the bar. We just had to take our cloaks into the auditorium. The place was full because Nicola Benedetti was playing the Bruch Violin Concerto. Ms Benedetti had played the Brahms in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall the previous evening and it had been packed also. Anyway everybody in the Usher Hall just had to sit in their overcoat or stuff it under the chair. It gave the occasion a fleeting sense of transience, an atmosphere not unlike, I imagine, these occasions in 1945 when scratch ensembles gave hurried renditions of the great German classics in bombed out halls lacking a roof and before huddled masses starved of culture as well as food.
I said to the lady on my left, who turned out to be a relative of Enid Blyton, “You’d think they’d be able to offer a peg, even a shoogly one.” She said, “I’ll tell my son-in-law. He’s the hall manager.”
By contrast, at the Festival Theatre for the opera on Saturday evening, the cloakrooms were accommodating not only cloaks, but guide dogs. I saw two of them settling in for the evening, a black lab and a golden retriever. I thought of them as a couple out for the evening, the gentleman in black tie, the lady in a gorgeous golden coat. They seemed to understand very well the social norms of attending the opera. I imagined their conversation.
“What’s on tonight?”
“Pelleas et Melisande. Debussy.”
“What’s that about?”
“The usual human preoccupations. Abuse of women and children, lust, infatuation, jealousy, murder.”
“Are you going in?”
“I don’t think so. It’s a long sit.”
My conversation with a stranger turned out to be with a lady from Aberdeen who as a child had known Mary Garden (1877 – 1967). Mary Garden created the role of Melisande in the 1902 premiere at the Opera Comique in Paris. She joined the Manhattan Opera House in New York in 1907 and also sang Melisande in the US premiere. Some people said she was Debussy’s mistress but I believe Ms Garden was not one of them. Her acquaintance and I fell to talking about Nicola Benedetti and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s lightning tour this week of Florida. She hoped that if Nicola met President Trump she would give him a good piece of her mind. I remarked I rather thought President Trump would like to meet Ms Benedetti. She raised her eyes to the ceiling.
The RSNO are doing eight concerts in nine days in places like Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Sarasota. They are playing two programmes presumably four times each. Frankly it sounds like very hard work and not much fun. They are playing, among other things, Beethoven 5 and Tchaikovsky 4. That strikes me as odd programming. Beethoven 5 is a wonderful piece of music, but why would you go all the way across the Atlantic to perform it four times? If somebody said to you, “Fancy going to see La-La Land?” they would not be surprised if you shook your head and said, “I’ve seen it already.” Similarly, “Fancy going to hear Beethoven 5?” “I’ve heard it already.” The flautist Sir James Galway says he made up his mind to leave the Berlin Phil during a power cut when they were playing Beethoven 5. The orchestra played on, undaunted, in the pitch black.
I remarked to Enid Blyton’s relative in the Usher that the classical concert-going audience was grey haired and is now white haired. Another decade, and perhaps the RSNO will be playing Beethoven 5 in a Peabody Auditorium, Daytona Beach, that is deserted. Scary thought.