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A conductor. Photo: Getty Images.
A conductor. Photo: Getty Images.

Pop CultureApril 3, 2019

The NZSO’s Classical Journey was worth the trip

A conductor. Photo: Getty Images.
A conductor. Photo: Getty Images.

‘There’s something incredible about watching otherwise ordinary people do something extraordinary.’ A recent NZSO performance prompts Anna Knox to reflect on what makes live classical music so special.

I always forget, beforehand, that live orchestral performance is one of most wonderful things a human being can experience, and then, the moment the first note is struck, I remember. But when the performance is over, I forget again. It is so in the moment that only the moment can speak for it. So this time, I took a notebook.

I recently scored tickets to the NZSO’s Podium Series Classical Journey at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington. I’ve been to hear the NZSO perform several times, with comps, and loved it every time, and yet it remains something I am unlikely to personally fork out for. I’m curious as to why – when I know it’s likely the closest I’ll get in this life to the sublime – these events are not at the top of my cultural priority list. I suspect this is not unique to me, and is also a question the NZSO would like an answer to.

My ticket granted me access to the member’s lounge, and, thinking about my question while sipping my complimentary bubbles, I spoke with an orchestra representative about what draws people to a performance. She suggested that attending a concert was about far more than the performance, that it was about ‘the whole experience’, from what you wore, to the venue itself, to the conversations you had. I was unconvinced.

It’s true that the Michael Fowler Centre is an elegant and sumptuous work of art that is a pleasure to inhabit for an evening, and the squid-ink canapés and flowers by Juliette were all very lovely, but in truth, the ‘whole experience’ felt like something from another era, and the frills and formalities around it awfully proper. It was nice for a while, but then I wanted to be at home watching Homeland on the sofa, drinking my own inferior wine and eating a block of Whittakers, instead of holding my poise, trying to act like free champagne was no big deal.

That said, the member’s lounge was not aimed at me, and it’s very true that the NZSO has made a good effort in the past few years to reach a different audience, by modernising the experience of classical music and ‘making it more appealing to a younger generation’. I quote that, confidently, guessing those are the exact words which resound in marketing meetings about the orchestra’s future. The orchestra has performed of late with the likes of The Phoenix Foundation (to a fantastically full house in Wellington last year), and included items like Summer Pops – Music from the Movies, the StarWars in Concert shows, and The Shed Series (mixing contemporary and classic music), in their programming.

Even their marketing in 2018 was self-consciously personable – more like an Apple campaign than a classical music promo – with each program featuring a different member of the orchestra posed with their instrument and a smiling face against a white background. I liked it. It certainly drew me in. This season the concept design for the series is more artistic; a block photo partially imposed over an unframed sketch. I was intrigued by the one for Classical Journey with its photo of a woman in a head-scarf — or was it? You had to get closer to tell, because a beam of sunlight was cutting through the middle of the image. It is, of course, Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers, which was the first piece in the programme.

Some of the imagery for the NZSO 2019.

The informal, personable approach continues at the start of each performance when the recorded voice of a member of the orchestra sounds throughout the auditorium, introducing themselves and their instrument and telling you about ‘tonight’s performance’. This was augmented last season when the same person on the programme you were holding in your hands was talking to you from the heavens. But there’s something slightly awkward about it all. When the conductor (in this case the wonderful Hamish McKeich) turned casually to the audience and riffed about the performance we were about to experience while flicking the hair out of his eyes, I found myself looking around.

In some ways, I realised, I preferred the conductor to be faceless and voiceless, less down to earth and more remote, and I certainly didn’t want all the information he was offering. As with an art exhibition I don’t initially want to know the background to the work, or hear interpretations of it, or gage the meaning intended by its creator or executor. I want to experience the work first-hand, uninterrupted, and learn more later. In the case of Classical Journey it was easy to learn more. The brochure could have served as a doorstop and seemed to have been disproportionately elongated to squeeze in just a little more info on Prokofiev.

That sense of wanting to be left alone with just the music, I realised, hid part of the answer to my question about what makes an orchestral performance amazing, and made me wonder if all the trappings around it – whether accessorising or personalising – can sometimes create barriers to access, rather than freeing it up. Because when you strip it down, the music would be just as vital performed in the streets as it is in the Michael Fowler Centre, with its accompanying brochures, and possibly more so. Case in point, the recent NZ Opera performance in the Hannah’s courtyard on Leeds street as part of Cuba Dupa was fantastically animated.

The ’whole experience’ is not the true appeal, and neither is the personable approach. It’s the performance itself, the immediate miracle of it. It’s the individuals, their lives, their fingers, their minds all focusing in the same split second on the same thing, playing their part, calling up black shapes from a white page, resurrecting the mind of Rossini from 1813, that has you sitting on the edge of your existential seat, even if you’re slumped half-asleep in your physical one, as the guy next to me was.

The NZSO. Photo: Stephen A’Court.

But that’s also where the problem lies. There is simply no way to replicate a live performance, other than to be there, bearing witness, on the journey. It is so in the moment that only the moment can speak for it. Once it’s over, so is the magic. And you don’t remember why you came, or think about returning. Which is why, sitting there pre-performance with McKeich flicking his hair about, I decided to try and annotate my experience of the moment, in the moment, as a way to convince myself of its worth afterward, and hold onto whatever I always forget when it’s over.

I don’t even know what I’m listening to, I wrote in my notebook. It doesn’t matter. The bassoon is a trout in a stream. The piccolo is a dragonfly. The two of them are chasing each other above and below the water.

Poetic. Though I also wrote: The lights are still on — why are the lights still on?

And: Why are the fiery pillars of hell burning up backstage?

In short: The lighting was quite odd.

More insightful, perhaps, was this:

It’s the moment where the violins, desperate in their minor key, resolve to major. And you feel all the meaning in your life, all the angst, has finally been contained. And then the moment is gone and the world is chaos again, but you did have that moment.

But there is no time to dwell on it, because the music has already moved on. I realise sitting there that I don’t understand it at all. I don’t process it. I don’t absorb it. I don’t remember it. I don’t need to. Briefly a melody returns, so I feel I might catch it and hold it, but then it’s galloping off again and I’m left empty. It is pure zen.

The performance itself is only part of it though. The performers are perhaps what ultimately makes live performance so charged. Without them, the music may as well be coming out of your home stereo while you eat your Whittakers. And, to my mind, they themselves are almost as much a part of the performances as their skills.

Who is that cellist, Andrew Joyce? I write. Did he rush to get here? Did he kiss his kids goodnight before he left? Did he put his dishes away? Who is Malavika Gopal? How did she learn to play the violin? Did she have too much coffee today?

There’s something incredible about watching otherwise ordinary people do something extraordinary, and you have to be a dead piece of meat not to be drawn into their obsession in some way, to be intrigued by their human drive to dedicate their lives to success at fusing themselves with a single instrument, largely because they love it. Every performer — that guy nodding his head like he wants it to come off, that one throwing his body at his strings, that one twitching, twitching, that one in the silk and lace number— they all love it.

So does the conductor, I scrawl, the improv guy, dancing, swaying, jumping up and down, jiggling and wiggling his butt, drawing music out of the air with his hands, out of his accomplices who surrender without question to his command.

As he lowers his baton, and the performers rest their instruments for the interval, we applaud, and in that moment after the music stops I briefly grasp some sort of understanding of what it is I am applauding. The notebook comes out.

It is a petrified Western cultural moment which I have been educated to both revere and reject in equal measure. And whether I adore or mock it, this performance is undeniably an accumulation of Western cultural history, with its obsessive elevation of the individual, but also its less acclaimed legacy of collective thought. For this performance to happen, thousands of humans had to agree, across time and space, on how to annotate sound, on how to interpret that annotation, on how to play it on many instruments simultaneously. The instruments had to be crafted, developed, made. Musicians had to be trained, the training passed on from generation to generation. The notes put on a page then copied and distributed, shipped and transmitted, and pulled up repeatedly and thrown into the air, decade after decade. As well as the performers, the composer, the conductor and the moments of sublime they have made possible, I am applauding my heritage and something that is actually good about it.

I wrote most of this before March 15, 2019 and reading it later – after – I felt somewhat uncomfortable at what I’d said, as a white Westerner, about my heritage. But it’s not just mine, of course. It’s everybody’s. What I was clapping for, and what I might pay money to come back and uphold by witnessing, was ultimately the evidence of humanity achieving something transcendent. Evidence of a tremendous cross-centuries effort to convey what it means to be human and to want to be more than human.

After the interval, I try to stop writing and just listen, but I can’t. I am truly swept up. Time loosens, into a kind of childhood, uninhibited craziness, vibrancy, fucking play, but contained and ordered and presented to me to revel in so I’m running, jumping, hopping, skipping, tripping, fucking flipping out along the metaphysical halls of existence. (No, but I am!)

Finally, toward the end of the performance, Brahms yells at me from deep in the black notes, transposed from his brain to paper in the summer of 1873 at Tutzing in Bavaria and thence down the line to here, in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wed, 27th Feb, 2019, through these miraculous performers, and he says: STOP THINKING ABOUT IT!!

I put the notebook away.

Keep going!