A convivial luncheon, last week, in Kilbride. East or West? West. But I believe the honest burgers of the Ayrshire coastal town, home of the world’s tastiest potato, prefer to leave the compass bearing out. That bespeaks a certain self-confidence of the sort that characterises other Scottish townships, Kippen, Bridge of Allan, and, of course Edinburgh. Perhaps the residents of East Kilbride would call it smugness. West bespeaks urbanity, gentrification, and style; east is disadvantage, squalor, and despair. Just think of Glasgow. Or war time London. When the Luftwaffe bombed Buckingham Palace the (then) queen said, “Now we can look the East End in the eye.” The west’s sense of superiority over the east is seen globally, in macrocosm. West is freedom, east is oppression. This has little to do with compass bearings. Australia is firmly in the west. Still, in New Zealand, the association of “westness” with enlightenment and sophistication is less apparent. Inhabitants of West Auckland are known as “westies” and here the term implies a certain rough-neck, hick, frontier spirit. Meanwhile the east-west divide has become less apparent in London, where obscene wealth and obscene poverty live cheek by jowl, after the fashion of the huge, sprawling Gotham Cities of Latin America.
Luncheon in Kilbride (sic) was a convocation of people who have been playing music together for over half a century. Two bassoons, two violas, flute, piano, percussion, and voice. I wonder if anybody has composed for such a combination? Perhaps we should commission a work. Then again, perhaps not. Inevitably, the conversation turned to matters musical. Apparently, said a bassoon, there is some evidence that the production of sound within the belly of a Stradivarius results in a mysterious molecular realignment in the ancient wood, which enhances the beauty of tone. This, I said, might explain why, when I (a viola) take my ersatz Strad out of its dusty case, the sound is dead, though I suspect that might have more to do with my own molecular mal-alignment, than that of my instrument’s pine belly, and maple back.
Anyway, I did dust off the Strad, and went to play a concert yesterday with the Dunblane Chamber Orchestra. It nearly didn’t happen, decimated by Covid as we are, our composition even more chamber-like than usual. Only two violas. Eek! Even our conductor was hors-de-combat. The conductor of the Stirling Orchestra stepped in at short notice, with great effectiveness, and fortunately the other viola player is very accomplished.
The concert was in aid of Ukrainian refugees so we started with the Ukrainian National Anthem. A stark reminder of the east-west divide. Then, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Max Bruch’s Concerto for Viola and Clarinet, David Breingan’s Jubilee 70 (world premiere), and Schubert’s Second Symphony. That was a lot of music. If I were paid by the quaver, I would be a rich man. The Schubert went like the clappers. I had the sensation of being on a train travelling so fast that I couldn’t discern the names of the stations through which we clattered.
The Bruch concerto was very beautiful. I hadn’t heard it before, though having played the chamber pieces for piano, clarinet and viola, I recognised the idiom. In the programme note, I read that the first performance, in 1912, fell rather flat. The critics called it “bland, soft, unexciting, over-polite and unmodern.” Well, I do wish we heard more music that was bland, soft, unexciting, over-polite and unmodern. I suppose to your “average” concert-goer Max Bruch is something of a one hit wonder, the one hit being his G minor violin concerto. But there is a vast repertoire out there – not just Max Bruch – that is unheard, and unknown. I used to think that the combination of talent and industry in the arts generally would inevitably find its way in the world, but I no longer believe this to be the case. Thomas Gray knew that full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air. We tend to think that the great pillars of musical history – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert – were somehow inevitable, but it’s not true. They could have been snuffed out. They could have produced – and no doubt others have produced – a body of work that never came to light. What giants have been lost to history?
A quorum of the Kilbride Octet reconvened for the last concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s season in Glasgow. The RSNO went out with a bang, and Beethoven 9. Oddly enough, the first concert I ever attended in my life ended with Beethoven 9. It was in Glasgow’s St Andrews Hall, before it was burnt down – obviously – and I think I was aged about nine. I don’t suppose I made much of it, though it says something of Beethoven’s universal appeal that I think I was conscious of being present at a remarkable event. I remember being impressed around the same time when I heard the opening of the Pathétique Sonata. I remember being overawed by the look of the music on the printed page. All these thick black lines of hemidemisemiquavers. They just looked so angry.
The RSNO’s rendition last week was terrific, though I admit I was rather unreceptive. I was distracted, not so much by the fidgety child sitting in front of me (who might, after all, have been my doppelgänger) as by the child’s parents who wouldn’t cease from fidgeting with their mobile devices, as incandescent as my sense of mounting rage. I got into a mood.
Alle Menschen werden Brüder…