Greatly looking forward to the inaugural concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s new season, and having arranged to foregather with friends in Ask Italia, across the road from the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, I descended upon Glasgow circa 1730 on Saturday evening. I was disappointed, though hardly surprised, as it has been the case for some time now, to find that the Buchanan Galleries car park is still closing at 2100. What earthly use is that on a Saturday night? But all is not well with Buchanan Galleries, a splendid shopping mall which, rumour has it, despite being, in terms of the normal life span of a building, virtually brand new, is about to be pulled down. I guess the “footfall” is dying away as people opt to shop, and carry out virtually everything else, on line. So I parked in the Concert Square car park, a grim Lager with its sullen ammoniacal reek, and slipped across to the concert hall.
Closed! I walked up Sauchiehall Street, past the gently billowing tumbleweed, to Waterstones, browsed, and returned to the concert hall, still closed, not to be opened until 1815. This is outrageous! – I said to the hapless doorman, conscious that I sounded like Bernard Levin, complaining he could not purchase champagne at the Usher Hall bar during the Edinburgh International Festival. This is not worthy of a great cosmopolitan city. Yes, sir. I will write to the papers! You do that, sir. I repaired to Ask Italia, and offloaded my gripes and grumbles upon my longsuffering friends who, under the weather from La Grippe, and from recent Covid and ‘flu vac boosters, now had to put up with my rant.
The lasagne was excellent.
To the concert. Balsam. The leader of the RSNO, Maya Iwabuchi, introduced the programme. She can be quite laconic. She didn’t say anything about the contemporary work that would start the concert’s second half, but said that later the composer would come on stage and “explain himself”. But she did give us a warning. Brace yourselves. For the first half, the orchestra played Stravinsky’s Fireworks, and the Benjamin Britten Violin Concerto. Fireworks, Stravinsky’s Opus 4, was enchanting, impressionistic, perhaps reminiscent of Debussy. The Britten was very haunting, particularly its protracted closing passages, masterfully played by the young American violinist Stefan Jackiw. We repaired to the bar. Friends from Canada said they envied us having all this culture on our doorstep.
Part 2 commenced. David Fennessy did indeed come on stage to talk about the impending World Première of his commissioned work, The Riot Act. The composer had at his disposal the forces required for the work that was to follow, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The availability of such massive forces is, apparently, a composer’s dream. The Riot Act was of six minutes’ duration, and Mr Fennessy remarked that he distrusted introductory talks that exceeded the length of the music. (I think he ran it pretty close.) The Riot Act concerned an event that took place a stone’s throw (as the composer said, literally a stone’s throw) from where we now were, the Battle of George Square, on January 31st 1919, aka Black Friday or Bloody Friday. On January 27th, 3,000 workers met in St Andrew’s Hall to demonstrate against unemployment, and the imposition of a 47 hour week. A strike was called, and over the course of the next few days flying pickets amassed 40,000 workers. In London there was nervousness about an impending Bolshevik uprising. A War Cabinet was held on January 30th, chaired, in the absence of the PM, Lloyd George, by Andrew Bonar Law. The Sheriff of Lanarkshire called for military aid, and troops, along with six tanks, were despatched, but not from nearby Maryhill Barracks, whose occupants might have sympathised with the workers. A mass crowd had gathered in George Square. The people were ordered to disperse. The authorities read the riot act. Literally.
Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assembles.
GOD SAVE THE KING
In David Fennessy’s piece, the Riot Act was read, or sung, by the tenor Mark Le Brocq, while the orchestra took the part of the rioters.
The Riot Act proved to be absolutely ghastly. I say that, not because it was avant garde, or “difficult”, or dissonant, or tuneless (though all of that is true), but because it was painfully, and I mean painfully, loud. An enormous percussion section, going at full blast, was augmented by four musicians scattered about the choir stalls deploying shrieking police whistles of the Acme Thunderer variety. It was excruciating. It was also a health hazard. I had to cover my ears.
So from my muffled redoubt I can’t be sure what next transpired. I think the document being declaimed was snatched away, and since the Riot Act was not fully read, it could not be enacted. But I suspect that’s wishful thinking. In the event, there was a baton charge by police, some of them mounted. Machine gun nests were installed in George Square. The crowd was dispersed. Fortunately there was only one fatality, a policeman who later died as a result of a head injury. So perhaps the “Battle” of George Square is an exaggeration. I’ve been reading Kate Adey’s autobiography, The Kindness of Strangers, in which she gives a very vivid account of events that took place in 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square. She was there. Her description is extraordinarily vivid, and the events truly horrific.
In his talk, David Fennessy extolled our rights of freedom of assembly, and of freedom of speech. It crossed my mind to stand up during the performance and exercise such rights by carrying out my own personal demonstration against noise pollution. But I would not have been heard. People might have thought I was part of the performance. There was a further irony in the juxtaposition of The Riot Act with The Rite of Spring which, at its first performance in Paris in 1913, caused a riot.
But now I was no longer in the mood. I’ve been here before. I attended a London Prom in 2008 (on the night the great champion of Arnold Bax, the conductor Vernon Handley died), featuring Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica, Iannis Xenakis’ Pléiades, and Holst’s The Planets. The RVW was beautiful, and the Xenakis, a percussive piece, like The Riot Act, an assault on the delicate mechanisms of the inner ear. I whispered to my neighbour, “Life’s too short”, and left.
And I would have done the same on Saturday night, but for the fact that my friends might have concluded I had taken ill. Which, in a way, I had. But I no longer had any desire to hear the Stravinsky. Attending a concert is a bit like sitting down to, in this case, a four course meal. The palate demands a certain congruity, or continuity; each course informs the one to follow. But now somebody had evacuated on to my plate.
What a racket. Think I’ll write to the papers. My friends, wearied of my expostulations, nodded. “You do that, James.”