Two highly contrasting visits to Perth Concert Hall last week; on Monday to hear Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk play Brahms, and on Thursday to hear English Touring Opera present Tosca.
Not content with playing all three Brahms sonatas for violin and piano (for the first time in one concert), Ms Benedetti prefaced each sonata with extended introductions dealing with the events in Brahms’ life at the time of each composition, the works themselves, and her own response to them. Following the music, both performers sat down on stage for a thirty minute question and answer session with a large audience whose members almost all stayed behind for the duration. (There was an amusing interlude when Ms Benedetti told us that her mother was in the audience. “Where are you, mum?” Then, with laughter and mock indignation, “Has she gone? I’m offended!”) It said a lot for a sizeable contingent of very young people, many of them aspiring violinists, that the audience remained in rapt attention throughout.
They are a very class act, Benedetti-Grynyuk. I’ve heard them play Perth Concert Hall once before, and particularly recall a memorable Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata. Mr Grynyuk is as wonderful a pianist as Ms Benedetti is a violinist. Both seem able to conjure from their respective instruments sounds of extraordinary expressivity. (Sorry! I sound like a guest on Michael Barclay’s Private Passions. Sublime, Michael.)
The question and answer session was interesting. All sorts of queries, from people of all ages. Ms Benedetti has a rare gift for communication with warmth, sincerity, and entire lack of pretence. Mr Grynyuk was a man of fewer words but they were well chosen and he had an irrepressible dry wit. I was particularly struck by Ms Benedetti’s response to a question from a young girl. “What advice would you give to somebody trying to be a violinist?”
“Do you play the violin?”
There followed a conversation part private part public. I hope I get the gist of Ms Benedetti’s reply right. You have to decide what music, and the violin, means to you. If you decide to devote yourself to it, you have to do the work. Listen to your teachers and to all advice, but not uncritically. Everything you are told has to be absorbed and evaluated by your own inner core.
It crosses my mind that when Nicola Benedetti was 16 she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year, got a recording contract, and embarked on a career. I recall a remark she once made, that she got a lot of career advice that wasn’t necessarily any good. She could easily have become enslaved by somebody else’s idea of what she was about. But she didn’t. I detect in her an extraordinary inner core of belief and resolve. I think it was this sense of Truth to Self that she was trying to convey to her young listener.
If the Benedetti-Grynyuk-Brahms combination was inspirational and life-affirming then Tosca was something quite different. Torture; murder; execution; suicide. Strong meat, indeed. I did ask myself, what are you doing here? I have a phobia of judicial execution. Grand Opera; honestly it’s too too bloody. Only the other day I saw Pelleas in Edinburgh (lust, jealousy, abuse, murder) and then Bluebeard’s Castle in Glasgow (poor Judith finds herself married to a serial killer). A Diva’s lot is not a happy one.
But, let’s face it, Grand Opera for all that it is highly stylized to the point of absurdity, does seem to hold the mirror up to human nature. Some people think our lives are like a soap opera but on the whole I tend to think of life, public life at any rate, as Grand Opera. In Grand Opera you are privy to the unfolding of a series of tragic events the protagonists are powerless to resist. At the end of Act 1 of Tosca, while the Te Deum is sung in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, formulates his dreadful plan of destruction and possession. Puccini’s music is overwhelming. Scarpia is a complete monster. He tortures the painter Cavaradossi, plans to execute him and have his evil way with his lover the beautiful singer Floria Tosca. Yet when Tosca stabbed Scarpia to death on stage I actually felt rather sorry for him. He was in the grip of some external force of evil and as much a victim as anybody else. This is the thing about operatic characters; they are playthings of the gods.
Following the purgation of pity and terror, you leave the theatre and resume life in the real world, disconcerted to find youself observing life on “the world stage”, and what you are observing to all intents and purposes resembles Grand Opera. There is a horrible feeling that the libretto has already been composed; the players are merely acting it out. John Adams composed Nixon in China. I bet you somebody writes an opera about President Trump. I hope it’s like a piece of Gilbert & Sullivan. Meanwhile I can’t get the close to Act 1 of Tosca out of my head. The bells, the bells.